Why Charles Manson cult member Leslie Van Houten was released from prison 53 years after committing murder

Leslie Van Houten at her parole hearing
Leslie Van Houten. AP photo Stan Lim/Los Angeles Daily News via AP

Leslie Van Houten was a teenager in August 1969 when she participated in the horrific killing of a married couple in their Los Angeles home at the behest of cult leader Charles Manson.

In 1971, Van Houten received the death sentence for the murder of Leno LaBianca, a wealthy businessman, and his wife, Rosemary. But that was commuted to life in prison the following year when the California Supreme Court overturned the state’s death penalty law.

headshot of Daniel S. Medwed
Daniel S. Medwed, University Distinguished Professor. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

On Tuesday, after 53 years in prison, Van Houten, 73, was released on parole. This came after a California Second District Court of Appeals judge reversed Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to block her parole.

Van Houten was recommended for parole five times since 2016, but former Gov. Jerry Brown and Newsom rejected all of those recommendations.

Van Houten is the only one of Manson’s followers involved in the murder who was let out of prison after Newsom announced last week that he would not appeal to the California Supreme Court.

Northeastern Global News spoke to Daniel Medwed, university distinguished professor of law and criminal justice, about Van Houten’s release and why murderers can be paroled in some cases. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

What is your reaction to the release of Leslie Van Houten?

Whenever it’s a high-profile case, it gets a lot of attention when there’s a parole release. It’s not uncommon, especially in lower-profile cases, for people even on murder sentences to get released on parole. It’s very rare to get released at your first appeal or given parole at the minimum sentence mark, but it’s not unusual for people to eventually get parole.

There’s an argument that it’s harder to get a fair shake in a high-profile case because parole boards are worried about the political ramifications. But a lot of factors that parole boards look into are not about how high profile the case was, but about whether the person is no longer a risk and whether the person has improved his or herself a lot in prison.

There are a lot of statistics that show people aging out of violent crime and are unlikely to reoffend. 

How do sentences get decided for murder cases?

Every state has its own laws about homicide crimes. In some states, depending on the type of homicide, it could lead to the death penalty. In other states where there is no death penalty, the maximum sentence is life in prison.

Many states impose what are called indeterminate sentences where you’ll get a sentence like 25 years to life in prison, as opposed to a set sentence. The reason for this in states that have parole systems is that you want to incentivize prisoners to behave well while they’re in prison to maximize the chance they’ll get released. 

In some places, there is life without parole [sentencing option]. But the idea in many states is you want to create an incentive for good behavior.  

But how do we know that the punishment fits the crime?

When it comes to punishment, there are lots of different theories.

Some people view prisons as simply places to incapacitate people from harming others, to prevent them from doing anything wrong. Other people think that the role of prisons should be rehabilitation, that if somebody has made a mistake, they should be given opportunities to improve their situation and rehabilitate.

Other people think prisons are about what’s called retribution. It is the “eye-for-an-eye” concept, just pure punishment for somebody who’s done something wrong. And still others think that it’s about deterrence, that you want to deter people both the individual prisoner and everyone else from committing the same crime.

Everyone who is involved in this field has a different recipe [for how this should work]. People who believe in prison abolition think that the whole goal should be rehabilitation and that instead of having prisons, we should have programming.

Why is it possible to get out of prison on parole for some egregious crimes?

The whole concept of parole evolved in the 19th century, and it was conceived in Europe. It came during a time when one of the prevailing views about imprisonment was this medical idea that prisoners were sick and that the goal of corrections was to heal them. And part of the way to heal them was to incentivize them to take steps on the path to improvement.

It also tied into a lot of religious ideology, and even Freudian psychology. From religion comes the idea that if you repent for your sins, then you will get forgiveness, you will get mercy. It was around this time that prisons became known as penitentiaries for penitence, which is a religious concept.

The Freudian psychology idea was that if you’re in denial about what you’ve done, then you won’t heal. You have to unpack your inner demons and come to terms with them, and acknowledge what you’ve done in order to improve yourself. 

How is the decision about parole made?

Parole is more art than science. Parole boards look for signs of contrition, signs of rehabilitation. It’s really qualitative.

Some states have tried to make [the decision-making process] a little bit more quantitative with different metrics and specific things that they look for to guard against racial bias. How many disciplinary infractions has the person had? Have they completed education programs? Have they taken leadership responsibilities in prison? What is their release plan?

But the fundamental idea is that it’s a gift given to people who have done well and taken strides toward self-improvement and come to terms with what they’ve done.

What do people not realize about paroles?

Parole isn’t freedom, parole is just conditional liberty.

You are still being monitored by the state. You are still subject to meeting with your parole officer and meeting the conditions of your parole. 

Sometimes conditions of parole include restrictions on where you go, whether you can have alcohol. A very small slipup could send you back to prison for the remainder of your life. Even legal activity that violates your parole conditions could be enough for violation of probation, which could get you set back.

Parole is different from what’s called clemency where you’re pardoned, and you’re released and forgiven for your crime. There aren’t any strings attached.

Where is the conversation on the death penalty currently at?

There’s been a gradual movement away from the death penalty in terms of a handful of states abolishing it in recent years. But on the one hand, we’ve also seen kind of a doubling down on the death penalty in places that are more conservative.

For instance, Florida has recently pursued some really harsh death penalty rules, which feels like it’s going the opposite direction. So, to some extent the death penalty debate reflects our larger political debate.

Alena Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at a.kuzub@northeastern.edu. Follow her on Twitter @AlenaKuzub.