“If an individual is eligible for parole and the Board determines they are no longer a threat, the law says they must be paroled unless there is firm evidence indicating they are still a threat.”
– Evan Westrup, spokesman for Gov. Jerry Brown
What is the role of prison?
The most obvious is to protect us from those who may do us harm. To keep the murderers and rapists, child molesters and fraudsters, away from us in an isolated place where they cannot hurt anyone else.
The most satisfying reason is to punish those who have transgressed, to make them suffer as their victims have suffered and to know that every day they must live with their actions and their consequences in a place, physically and mentally, in which they cannot escape from this reality.
But the tacit role of prison – so tacit that some forget it is even a reason at all – is to reform, to teach offenders that what they have done is wrong and to prepare them, someday, to reenter “the outside” as functioning members of society.
So what happens when someone has clearly shown remorse, taken full responsibility for their actions, disavowed the ideology that led them astray, boasts a clean record while incarcerated, is eligible for parole, been granted parole, and yet still waits in limbo for the powers that be to make a decision on the validity of her parole?
Ask Leslie van Houten.
For anyone not familiar with her name, you have clearly heard the name Charles Manson. Leslie was one of the three “girls,” the infamous trio who carved swastikas in their forehead, danced in glee down the halls of the courthouse during their trial, and seemed to be willing puppets for any command from one of America’s most infamous sociopaths.
Make no mistake. Leslie van Houten is a murderer. And I do not condone her actions. I am not here to convince you that what she did was in anyway condonable. Nor do I think that she is “innocent” of her crimes under the tyrannical thumb of a miscreant. Leslie knew what she was doing and made the choice to follow through. Were drugs a factor? Absolutely. Was peer pressure a factor? Absolutely. Did she go with the others that night knowing what was going to happen? Absolutely. Did she hold a pillow over Rosemary LaBianca’s face as Tex Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel stabbed her? Absolutely. Did Leslie then stab Mrs. LaBianca 14 more times in the lower back? Absolutely. All of this is unspeakable and rightly became the Crime of the Century. Were her actions during the trail exacerbated by the cameras and reporters? Perhaps. Ask anyone involved in the O.J. case and they will say that the eyes of the world definitely have a way of bringing out the worst in us all.
The Girls, Manson, and Tex Watson were sentenced to death – until California overturned capital punishment in 1972 (which was then reinstated in 1976 by a Supreme Court decision, but did not usurp Leslie’s commute to a Life sentence); making Leslie eligible for parole by 1979. Due to the death of her original lawyer, Leslie was given a retrial – two in fact, after the first ended in a mistrial – at which she was found guilty of first degree murder with the possibility of parole. Those last four words were crucial.
Since her incarceration, Leslie has done everything that she was “supposed to.” She has been kept away from us all in isolation so as to make us rest easier at night. She has been punished for 47 years, waking up every day with the knowledge that what she did was horrible and irreversible. And most importantly, she has been reformed. For the record, while awaiting her third trial, Leslie was out on bond and even held down a job (anonymously, of course), in where nothing happened. Less than 10 years away from Manson’s clutches, Leslie was a model citizen even as a (temporarily) “free” woman. She has taught illiterate women how to read in prison classes, stitched part of the AIDS quilt, made bedding for the homeless, recorded books on tape for the blind, and has gotten her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees while incarcerated.
And for whatever it’s worth, Leslie’s crimes would have happened with or without her cooperation; Mrs. LaBianca would have died at the hands of Tex Watson and Patricia Krenwinkel. Leslie’s role, while troubling and reprehensible, was the lesser of all evils and part of the reason why she was granted her own trials in the first place.
Let’s look at it from a legal perspective: a Stanford study found that of the 860 murderers paroled between 1990-2010, only 5 of them committed new crimes – none of which were murder. A few examples:
- Inmate Ernest Morgan shot and killed his 14 year old step-sister when he was 18. He was released after 24 years.
- James Thomas killed someone during a robbery when he was 17. He was released after 30 years.
- Kent Wimberly stabbed and killed two people when he was 17. He was released after 34 years.
- The average released “lifer” is in their mid-50s. Leslie was 19 when she killed Mrs. LaBianca. She is now 66.
- Today, an inmate convicted of first-degree murder in the state of California can be expected to serve 27 years. Leslie has been in prison almost 47 years.
If a criminal is truly to be granted the possibility of parole, then parole must seriously be considered. According to a 2008 California Supreme Court decision, a parole denial cannot be based on the viciousness of the crime alone. The inmate must still be considered a threat to society. Leslie van Houten has shown that she is not.
So then why is she just now being granted parole after 20 rejections?
I posit two theories: one, the media sensation of her crimes is so engrained in the fabric of our culture that it may be impossible for some, including the theoretically impartial members of a parole board, to see past the theatrics and look at the facts. And two, a reason that may be even more subconscious than the first, the fact that Leslie is a woman. And we don’t want to believe – no we cannot accept – that a woman could somehow be a monster. So we keep her locked away as a reminder to remember – and a way to forgot.
I understand that the LaBiancas are upset about the possibility of Leslie’s parole. They will never get their family back. And that is sad. Unthinkable, even. And Debra Tate has every reason to be angry at “The Family” (a term that has long lost any of its significance since everyone, except maybe Squeaky Fromme, disavowed Manson and his antics decades ago). Yes, “The Family” killed her sister, Sharon Tate. But what people seem to forget, including Debra, is that Leslie had nothing to do with Sharon’s death. Susan Atkins killed her sister. In fact, Leslie wasn’t even there the night Sharon Tate died. So truthfully, she should have no voice in the matter of what happens to Leslie and I wish the media would not even bother with her. She is tainting the waters. And unfairly so.
Emotionally, I can understand why some – including the families of the victims – want to see her rot in prison. To die a horrible death that could never be as horrible as the way Mrs. LaBianca died. But ethically and legally, I cannot understand – nor condone – any reason to keep Leslie van Houten imprisoned a day longer.
She has done her time. And it is time to set her free.