On Tuesday, Leslie Van Houten, who had been serving a life sentence for her involvement in the notorious murders committed by the Charles Manson cult when she was 19, was released from a California prison after spending 53 years incarcerated. At the age of 73, Van Houten had been convicted for her role in assisting Manson’s followers in carrying out the brutal killings of Leno LaBianca, a grocer residing in Los Angeles, and his wife, Rosemary.
Despite the state parole board ruling on multiple occasions, beginning in 2016, that Leslie Van Houten was suitable for release and posed no threat to society, her freedom was repeatedly denied by the governor’s office. However, Van Houten’s legal team contested these denials, and in May, a state appeals court sided with her, ultimately granting her release. The court acknowledged Van Houten’s accomplishments during her time behind bars, which included working as a tutor, obtaining a master’s degree in humanities, and actively participating in various mental health and self-improvement programs.
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During her more than five decades in prison, Van Houten had only one disciplinary incident on record, occurring in 1981 when she was reprimanded for “verbal communication with women,” according to the LA Times.
Speaking to the Guardian on Tuesday, Van Houten’s attorney, Tetreault, shared her client’s joy at the news of her release. However, he emphasized that after spending 53 years in prison and approaching her 74th birthday, this marked a significant and life-changing transition for her. Tetreault highlighted Van Houten’s remarkable commitment to personal growth and rehabilitation, with over four decades dedicated to therapy and three decades actively participating in programs aimed at her transformation.
Having fallen under the influence of Charles Manson and having taken part in the heinous murders, Van Houten worked diligently to break free from the cult indoctrination, understand her actions, and take full responsibility for them. She grappled with overwhelming guilt and expressed genuine remorse for her crimes. Tetreault believed that Van Houten felt immense relief that her past actions no longer defined her as a person.
In a statement to the Guardian last week, the spokesperson for Governor Newsom acknowledged that even after more than 50 years since the Manson cult committed their brutal acts, the impact is still deeply felt by the victims’ families and all residents of California.
Charles Manson, who spent nearly five decades in prison, passed away behind bars in 2017 at the age of 83. Patricia Krenwinkel, another former Manson follower convicted of murder, was granted parole for the first time last year, but Governor Newsom intervened and prevented her release. Susan Atkins, who was convicted of eight murders, passed away in prison in 2009.
Tetreault, Van Houten’s attorney, highlighted that Van Houten had appeared before the parole board 21 times before finally being deemed suitable for release. Since 2016, officials consistently recognized her progress and accomplishments. Tetreault emphasized the parole board’s unwavering support for her release, expressing pride in her transformation. He believed that Van Houten’s dedication to rehabilitative programs served as a source of hope for young individuals in prison who had committed terrible crimes, showing them that reform and parole are attainable, providing a chance for a better life.
According to the attorney, Van Houten’s adjustment to life outside of prison walls will be a lengthy process. He explained that she lacks familiarity with using computers or cellphones, navigating digital transactions, or even grocery shopping without cash.
The pending release of Van Houten has garnered significant national attention over the years. Last week, Cory LaBianca, Leno’s daughter who is now 75 years old, expressed her deep sorrow about the upcoming release, stating to the AP, “My family has been heartbroken by the fact that my children and grandchildren never had the opportunity to know either of them, leaving a tremendous void in our lives.”
Advocates for criminal justice reform, who have campaigned for Van Houten’s release, argue that her case highlights the flaws within California’s parole system. They point out that even when a state board determines that elderly incarcerated individuals have been rehabilitated and no longer pose a threat, they can still be denied release. Governors have frequently vetoed parole grants in high-profile and politically charged cases.
Similar to many other states, California is home to a growing population of aging individuals serving lengthy or indeterminate sentences, with limited opportunities for release. This situation has given rise to what civil rights lawyers describe as a humanitarian crisis.
Tetreault remarked, “It is crucial for people to recognize that these extended sentences prioritize retribution over rehabilitation.”
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