California governor blocks release of Manson follower Leslie Van Houten

By Neil Vigdor

A Charles Manson follower who is serving a life sentence for her role in the grisly double murder of a Los Angeles couple more than 50 years ago has lost her latest bid at freedom after California’s governor overrode a parole board’s decision granting her release.

The convicted murderer, Leslie Van Houten, was 19 when she and the other members of the so-called Manson family broke into the home of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca and stabbed them dozens of times on Aug. 10, 1969.

The killing of the LaBiancas took place one night after five people were murdered at the Benedict Canyon home of movie director Roman Polanski — including his pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate. The bloodshed, carried out under Manson’s direction, terrorized Los Angeles and beyond.

Van Houten, 71, qualified in July for release from a state prison, but California law gives the governor final say over whether an inmate is suitable for parole.

And on Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, overrode the parole board’s decision, characterizing Van Houten as a “danger” in a release review document.

“Ms. Van Houten’s explanation of what allowed her to be vulnerable to Mr. Manson’s influence remains unsatisfying,” Newsom said. “She described herself at the time of her involvement in the Manson family as a ‘very weak person that took advantage of someone that wanted to take control of my life, and I handed it over.’”

It is the second time that Newsom has blocked Van Houten’s parole and the fourth time that a governor has done so.

Rich Pfeiffer, a lawyer for Van Houten, said in an interview Sunday that he planned to appeal the governor’s decision in Superior Court in Los Angeles and that the case would likely end up in an appellate court.

“There’s no evidence supporting the governor’s reversal,” Pfeiffer said.

Pfeiffer said that the stigma of being associated with Manson, who was one of the most notorious murderers of the 20th century, had influenced Newsom. Manson, who spent most of his life behind bars, died in 2017 at 83.

“Plenty of murderers have gotten out of prison and done just fine, but they’re not high-profile cases,” he said.

At a parole board hearing in 2002, Van Houten admitted that she had pinned down Rosemary LaBianca, a dress shop owner, while another Manson family member, Patricia Krenwinkel, stabbed her in the collar bone. LaBianca unsuccessfully tried to free herself as she heard her husband, a supermarket executive, being stabbed in another room of the couple’s house in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles.

When the blade of the kitchen knife that was used on Rosemary LaBianca bent, another central figure in the attack, Charles D. Watson, stabbed her with a bayonet eight times, officials said. Van Houten told the parole board in 2002 that she had stabbed LaBianca in the abdomen 14 to 16 times.

The phrases “Death to Pigs,” “Rise” and other references to Helter Skelter, the name given by Manson to his apocalyptic race war, were scrawled in the victims’ blood on the walls and the refrigerator, investigators said.

At the crime scene, Van Houten wiped down surfaces for fingerprints, changed clothes and drank chocolate milk from the couple’s refrigerator, according to parole review records. She was arrested more than three months after the murders and has been imprisoned for about 50 years.

“I remain concerned by Ms. Van Houten’s characterization of her participation in this gruesome double murder, part of a series of crimes that rank among the most infamous and fear-inducing in California history,” Newsom said.

At the same time, Newsom said that Van Houten had an exemplary disciplinary record, had participated in self-help programming and had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees while incarcerated.

“When considered as a whole,” he said, “I find the evidence shows that she currently poses an unreasonable danger to society if released from prison at this time.”

Pfeiffer, the lawyer for Van Houten, said Sunday night that his client could be exposed to the coronavirus if she remained in prison.

“At her age, she’s at a high risk,” he said.

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