Although the people who murdered seven strangers at Charles Manson’s behest in 1969 renounced their former messiah decades ago, they’ve been unable to sever their ties to society’s satisfaction.
All four of those who were convicted of murder, along with Manson himself, in the infamous Tate-LaBianca killings in Los Angeles have been eligible for parole since the late 1970s.
But none has ever been released.
Even Susan Atkins was refused her request for a release just before she died of cancer in September 2009.
Another of Manson’s former followers, Patricia Krenwinkel, is the longest-serving woman inmate in the California prison system.
Some people have suggested that if Krenwinkel and her two still-living co-defendants, Leslie Van Houten and Charles Watson, had participated in any murders except those orchestrated by Manson, they would have been paroled by now.
Based on prison statistics, that’s probably true.
Legal experts believe that of the four, including Manson, Van Houten has the best chance to be released. She was the youngest of the defendants — 19 at the time of the murders — and, unlike Watson and Krenwinkel, Van Houten participated in the murders of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca but was not present the previous night when five people were killed, including the actress Sharon Tate.
(Manson himself, despite being by far the most notorious of those convicted, didn’t actually murder any of the Tate-LaBianca victims. But the prosecutor, the late Vincent Bugliosi, convinced a jury that Manson, by instigating the murders and ordering his acolytes to commit them, was legally as culpable as Van Houten and the other actual killers.)
Last week a two-member panel from the California Parole Board recommended that Van Houten be released. It’s probable that the full board will concur.
That’s what happened last year, but California Gov. Jerry Brown overruled the Parole Board, and Van Houten remained in prison.
In doing so Brown lent credence to the theory that it’s not so much Van Houten’s crimes, but rather her association with Manson, that has prevented her from being paroled.
The governor, in denying parole for Van Houten, cited the “shocking nature of the crimes” and the “disturbing” nature of Manson’s apparent motive, which was to ignite a race war, which he dubbed “Helter Skelter” after a song on the Beatles’ White Album from 1968.
It’s beyond question that Van Houten’s chance for parole has been greatly reduced because she was one of Manson’s killers.
We hope Brown again denies Van Houten’s bid for freedom. But this time we would like the governor, rather than focusing on the infamy of the Manson murders, simply to point out that keeping Van Houten in prison for the rest of her life is in fact a far more lenient punishment than the one that a jury of her peers handed down in a Los Angeles courtroom in 1971.
That jury, after finding Van Houten, Atkins, Krenwinkel and Manson guilty of murder (Watson was also convicted in a later, separate trial), sentenced all of them to die in California’s gas chamber.
Van Houten and the others escaped execution because the California Supreme Court in 1972 abolished the death penalty in the state (capital punishment was subsequently legalized in California), resulting in their death sentences being commuted to life in prison. But because California law at the time did not include life sentences without the possibility of parole, Van Houten was automatically eligible for parole.
We think that original jury’s decision still matters. And it seems clear that, in the absence of the death penalty, those jurors would have sentenced Van Houten to life in prison, with no exceptions.