Monday, June 5, 2023






        Rarely have judges so widely missed the forest for the trees as in a late May decision by a panel of the state Second District Court of Appeal to overturn Gov. Gavin Newsom’s refusal of parole for a deadly former member of the notorious “Manson Family.”


        At issue is the freedom of Leslie Van Houten, a teenage member of the murderous Charles Manson gang when she helped in the 1969 murders of Los Angeles grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary in their home, just one day after “family” members killed actress Sharon Tate and others in nearby Benedict Canyon.


        The three-judge panel held that Van Houten, now 73, no longer poses an “unreasonable risk of public safety,” essentially saying they believe she’s reformed after decades of “therapy, self help programming and reflection.”


        By a 2-1 margin, the judges overturned Newsom’s rejection of the state Parole Board’s recommendation to set Van Houten free.


        It is now incumbent upon Newsom to appeal this decision to the state Supreme Court.


        For the two judges in the majority here – Helen I. Bendix and Victoria Gerrard Chaney – badly missed the point.


        Imagine for a moment that their ruling prevails and Van Houten is on her own. She would instantly become one of the most sought-after potential guests in the history of talk shows. Hosts would want to put her through the paces of describing Manson Family life on the Spahn Movie Ranch in the Los Angeles district of Chatsworth, where scattered pieces of murdered stuntman Donald “Shorty” Shea were found eight years later.


        Even if parole authorities kept her off the air for awhile, hosts would eventually try to walk her through the drive to the LaBianca residence, query her on the racist rationale behind several Manson murders and the concept he called Helter Skelter. They would try to have Van Houten describe stabbing Rosemary LaBianca 14 times because – as Van Houten once said – she wasn’t sure the victim was really dead. They could also ask about slogans she scrawled on nearby walls using Rosemary’s blood.


        Then they’d likely let her talk about her claimed reform process.


        All this could eventually amount to “sowing the wind,” usually followed in the cliché by “reaping the whirlwind.” In an age of copycat crimes and repeated mass murders, Van Houten’s wide exposure could lead to just that kind of result from any public interview of her or other currently imprisoned Manson Family members.


        Parole officers could not ban such interviews forever. The sooner she’s out, the sooner they will occur.


        Fellow Mansonite Bruce Davis, who killed musician Gary Hinson and later helped carve up Shea, also wants parole and has been denied repeatedly by multiple governors. Charles “Tex” Watson, once Manson’s right-hand man and still in prison, is another who wants out.


        Their crimes, and Van Houten’s, were described this way by then-Gov. Jerry Brown when he denied Davis parole in 2016: "In rare circumstances, a murder is so heinous that it provides evidence of current dangerousness by itself. This is such a case."


        Brown believed the same when he also repeatedly reversed Parole Board decisions to free Van Houten, Watson and the late Susan Atkins, who – like Manson himself – died in prison.



        Newsom hasn’t spoken that way in his several reversals of recommended Manson-related paroles. Rather, he suggested Van Houten, for one, may not be as reformed as some think.


        In the current case, he noted inconsistencies between her recent statements and those she made soon after the killings. indicating “gaps in Ms. Van Houten’s insight or candor, or both.”


        The bottom line here is that the two judges wanting to set this killer free may believe she deserves mercy despite showing none to her victim. They may even be correct that she meets the letter of parole law.


        But they ignore the real danger here, which is the likelihood that others would seek equally lasting notoriety by attempting similar crimes if exposed to details of what Van Houten did. That probability, several governors have realized, far outweighs any public interest in seeing her freed.



    Email Thomas Elias at His book, "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It," is now available in a soft cover fourth edition. For more Elias columns, visit 

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