Too often society uses a high profile crime to make a statement about the criminal justice system; Leslie Van Houten is such a case. A former member of the Manson Family, she has been incarcerated for 46 years and during her 21st parole hearing on Thursday, April 14, she should be set free.
Van Houten was just 19 years old when she met an insane cult leader named Charles Manson. She lived with him and his family out in the desert in isolation, performed back-breaking labor, absorbed endless hours of his brainwashing, and took LSD.
On the night of August 9, 1969, under Manson’s orders, Van Houten along with several other members of the family, broke into the house of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and murdered both of them. Leslie personally stabbed Mrs. LaBianca more than a dozen times after she was dead and then stole some of her personal belongings.
Van Houten was the youngest woman ever to receive the death penalty in the history of the state of California, but her sentence was later reduced to life in prison with a chance of parole. The prosecutor in the case, Vincent Bugliosi said that his “guess” was that she’d be released in 15 to 20 years.
Her crime was gruesome, heinous, and barbaric; and she looks back on it with utter horror, shame, guilt, and takes full responsibility.
Who she was then, a 19-year-old girl under the mind control of a murderous cult leader, is not who she is now as a 66-year-old woman, fully rehabilitated, with two college degrees and a spotless prison record.
John Waters wrote in his book “Role Models” that over the years Van Houten taught illiterates to read, stitched portions of the AIDS quilt, made bedding for the homeless, recorded audio books for blind people, and clerked for the administrators, nurses, and other staff members.
None of that takes away from the brutality of the crime she committed nearly half a century ago; she recognized that during several parole hearings and has long asked for the mercy that she didn’t show during that night in 1969.
Yet, she is no longer that girl who “would die” for the cult leader that indoctrinated her, she has served far more than the “15 to 20” years the original prosecution thought she would, and she is no longer a threat to society. In fact, she’s a bigger burden by staying in prison than she would be if she were released.
If Van Houten is released on Thursday, she has said that she plans to do what she did when she was briefly set free after her first retrial in 1977; live quietly, obtain a job, and become a functioning part of society.
“I cannot find any indication where Miss Van Houten has done anything wrong in prison,” said Judge Bob Krug in 2002. “They can’t keep using the crime forever and ever. That turns her sentence into life without parole.”
If the purpose of prison is retribution, then Van Houten has served her time; if it’s incapacitation, then the senior citizen has shown she has no intention to join another murderous cult; if it’s deterrence, then Leslie has shown that she is no longer the naive girl who fell for the trappings of a raving lunatic who offered her hallucinogens; and if it’s rehabilitation, then she has shown she is cured.
Van Houten has paid her debt to society. After 46 years it’s time she is allowed to be free, and society must re-examine the way law enforcement are so quick to lock up prisoners and throw away the key.