Thursday, April 14, 2016

BREAKING NEWS: Parole Board Recommends Leslie Van Houten's Release

In her book The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten, Karlene Faith provides a contextual account of the 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders by members of the notorious Manson Family. Faith tutored and befriended the Manson girls in prison shortly after their sentences were commuted, and provides a sympathetic and complex account of cult life, brainwashing, and sexual exploitation that places the heinous murders in context.

Faith, and others, like John Waters, have long argued that van Houten should be paroled.

Today, the California parole board agreed with them. For the first time since 1978, and forty-seven years after the commission of the murders, the board has recommended her release. The Los Angeles Times reports:

In prior bids for parole, Van Houten's attorneys have characterized her as a model inmate who has obtained a college degree behind bars and has been active in self-help groups.
At a 2002 parole board hearing, Van Houten said she was “deeply ashamed” of what she had done, adding: "I take very seriously not just the murders, but what made me make myself available to someone like Manson."

This quote from Van Houten represents the operating principle in California parole hearings: inmates can only prevail if they take full personal accountability. The board does not listen to contextual issues, and bringing out the cult context did not do any favors for Van Houten in her second trial in 1979 or at her parole hearings. Nor has the parole board been persuaded by her clean disciplinary record, academic degree, and rehabilitative work in prison groups. This decision represents a dramatic departure, and one which other long-term inmates, such as Patricia Krenwinkel, are surely watching closely. 

Now, all eyes are on the Governor's office in Sacramento, where Governor Brown will have four months to decide whether to uphold the parole board's decision. Brown's office departed from the police during his predecessors' tenure, by which no paroles were granted, and this contributed to the kind of optimism that Nancy Mullane describes in Life After Murder. But this optimism has not, so far, included members of the Manson family; most notably, Governor Brown has declined to parole 73-year-old Bruce Davis, whose clean prison record and advanced degrees led to a parole recommendation. Moreoever, Van Houten and the others face formidable opponents in the L.A. District Attorney's office, who doggedly pursued their continued incarceration for more than forty years. Indeed, as the Los Angeles Times reports, 

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey expressed disapproval after the decision was announced: "We disagree with the board's decision and will evaluate how we plan to proceed."

As some old-timer readers know, I'm currently working on a University of California Press book about the parole hearings of the Manson Family, and this development took me by surprise. I'll be watching the Governor's office closely for the next few months. It'll sure be interesting.

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