Manson follower faces parole board for 19th time

By Linda Deutsch/The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – Leslie Van Houten, the one-time Charles Manson follower long seen as the most likely of his ex-acolytes to win freedom someday, faces her 19th parole hearing with a new lawyer and new case law which may give her the best chance yet for release.

Even if there is a finding of suitability for parole at Tuesday’s hearing, freedom would not be immediate. The entire state parole board would review the decision within 120 days and it would then be submitted to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for a final ruling.

Van Houten, 60, remains incarcerated at the California Institution for Women at Frontera, the same prison where another Manson follower, Patricia Krenwinkle, is imprisoned. Susan Atkins, the third woman convicted of murder in the crimes directed by cult leader Manson, died in prison last year after parole officials denied her dying request for freedom.

Van Houten last appeared before a parole board in 2007. Her chances for parole are enhanced by the fact that she has been discipline free since her incarceration in the early 1970s, has positive psychological reports and has been active in self-help groups at the prison including “Golden Girls,” a group for elderly women inmates.

She has a new lawyer, Brandie Devall, who told The Associated Press she will refer to rulings by the California Supreme Court in 2008 and 2009 affecting standards for parole.

Most significant is the case of Sandra Lawrence, a convicted murderer who was paroled after 23 years in prison after the court held that to refuse parole there must be evidence that a prisoner is currently a danger to public safety. The court said the board could not base a refusal only on the details of the crime committed by the inmate long ago.

Devall said the finding has also been upheld in federal court.

Another recent case, she said, deals with inmates who are between 16 and 20-years-old at the time of their crimes and holds that they are more likely to be rehabilitated. Van Houten was 19 when she joined other members of the Manson cult in the killings of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca.

Many attorneys have argued over the years that Van Houten is rehabilitated and not a danger to anyone.

Christie Webb, the attorney who represented Van Houten in prior parole hearings for nine years said, “It was time for Leslie to get someone with new ideas to persuade the board to do the right thing and grant her parole. I’ll continue to help her in any way that I can.”

Devall said the cases she will cite had not been decided at the time of Van Houten’s last parole hearing. She said she will cite Van Houten’s age, her youth at the time of the crimes and her extreme remorse. “There is no evidence of current dangerousness,” she said.

The prosecutor who will argue against Van Houten’s parole, Patrick Sequiera, did not return calls to The AP.

Van Houten was convicted of murder and conspiracy for her role in the slayings of the wealthy grocers. The La Biancas were stabbed to death in August 1969, one night after Manson’s followers killed actress Sharon Tate and four others including celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, filmmaker Voityck Frykowksi and Steven Parent, a friend of the Tate estate’s caretaker.

Van Houten did not participate in the Tate killings but went along the next night when the La Biancas were slain in their home. During the penalty phase of her trial she confessed to joining in stabbing Mrs. La Bianca after she was dead.

The Tate-La Bianca killings became one of the most notorious murder cases of the 20th Century and continues to rivet public attention 41 years later.

Van Houten was sentenced to death along with Manson, Atkins and Krenwinkle but their sentences were reduced to life in prison with the possibility of parole when the death penalty was briefly outlawed in the 1970s.

Van Houten’s first conviction was overturned due to legal errors and her second trial ended in a jury deadlock. But a third jury convicted her of murder again. Her lawyers had argued she was brainwashed by cult leader Manson.

She was portrayed as the youngest and least culpable of those convicted with Manson, a young woman from a good family who had been a homecoming princess and showed promise until she became involved with drugs and was recruited into Manson’s murderous “family.”

In past parole hearings she has apologized to the victims’ families and expressed remorse for her actions. Her record of good works in prison has been reviewed extensively. She earned college degrees while behind bars and has worked to help other women prisoners.

Decades ago, one of the original prosecutors in the case, Stephen Kay, said there would come a time when Van Houten would be ready for parole. But parole officials, while giving her high marks for her accomplishments, have refused her 18 times.

Whether they will grant her a parole date in this 19th hearing is the big question.

Another former Manson follower, Bruce Davis, convicted in a related murder case, was granted a parole date this year only to have the decision reversed last month by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

If Van Houten is refused parole, it is uncertain when she would get another chance. Under a new law, the board can set the length of time between parole hearings at 3, 5, 7, 10 or 15 years. Prison officials said Van Houten is in good health.