The American justice system is built on the principle that most criminals can be rehabilitated and eventually safely allowed back into society. However, the recent denial of parole for the youngest member of the Manson Family shows that America has a long memory and that some criminals will never be able to remove the stain of their violent acts.
In the 1960s, Charles Manson gathered a large group of men and women into a hippie-style cult where drugs and sex were shared indiscriminately and violent acts were planned. Manson lured in his followers with talk of the end of the world. The Manson Family all carved X’s into their foreheads to show deference to their leader Charles Manson.
Leslie Van Houten, who was 19 years old when she participated in the Manson Family killings, was refused parole for the twentieth time since her incarceration at the California Institution for Women. In her parole hearing, she asked that she be allowed to become a member of society again. She says she knows the weight of her crimes, but that she has been working hard in prison to become a better person who brings peace and not destruction to the world.
The Board of Parole Hearings commissioners hearing her case, however, couldn’t see past the heinousness of her crimes, and ruled that despite her efforts to rehabilitate that they were not going to give her freedom.
Jeffrey Ferguson, one of the commissioners, said that the nature of the crimes is always a factor in these hearings. The question is, has the prisoner accomplished enough good to supersede the bad? In Van Houten’s case, they felt she wasn’t there yet. He said that mention of the Manson Family still causes fear in many people.
She has been serving time for the last 44 years for her participation in the 1969 murder of the La Biancas, a husband and wife who were well-to-do shop owners in Los Angeles. The couple was stabbed to death and Van Houten admitted to using the knife on Mrs. La Bianca even after she was dead.
Charles Manson and other members of his family had also killed five other people, including actress Sharon Tate, the night before. Van Houten wasn’t present for that, although she confessed that at the time she was upset she got left behind and had insisted on being present for the next night’s gruesome slayings.
This most recent parole hearing lasted eight hours and although Van Houten and her friends, who wrote letters of support, tried to show how she has changed, the image of her 19-year-old self and her connection to Charles Manson couldn’t be shaken. Her apologies to the families of the victims did not hold as much weight as she hoped.
One damaging piece of evidence was when another of Manson’s followers, Barbara Hoyt, testified that Van Houten was one of the leaders in the group and that she was aware that Manson was trying to incite a race war. Ferguson felt that this motive and the fact that Van Houten couldn’t adequately explain why she got swept into the cult left doubt that she was fully rehabilitated. Even her own lawyer, Michael Satris, wouldn’t dare gloss over her crimes. He compared her actions to sinking into the depths of hell and dealing with the devil.
When asked why she was so willing to follow the orders of Charles Manson, she said that he was very compelling and seemed to know everything. She admitted she thought that he would not have been successful in his plans if it wasn’t for such malleable followers like herself. The question for the parole board was really whether or not her psyche was so damaged that she just got swept up, or if she actually knew what she was doing and willingly participated. They concluded that she willingly participated, and that was backed by her statements. Van Houten’s next chance for parole will be in five years. Ferguson said, however, it could be moved up if anything in the case changes.
Charles Manson, the leader of the Manson Family cult, is now 78 years old and no longer attempts to gain his freedom via parole. He said he considers prison his home.
Manson and his family still equally parts repel and fascinate people all these years later.