Judge deals blow to former Manson family member's latest bid to win freedom

For a while earlier in the year, it seemed Leslie Van Houten might get what she wanted: Release from prison on parole. But the youngest disciple of the murderous Manson cult hit another roadblock Thursday in her bid for freedom.

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan issued an 18-page ruling upholding the governor’s reversal earlier in the year of a parole board’s  decision to release Van Houten.

There is “some evidence” that Van Houten still presents an unreasonable threat to society, Ryan wrote, adding that he respects Gov. Jerry Brown’s broad discretion in such decisions.

Now 67 and living at a women’s prison in Corona, Van Houten was convicted of first-degree murder in 1978 and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

“There’s no question that if the word ‘Manson’ was not involved in her crimes, she would have been paroled 20 years ago,” said Richard Pfeiffer, Van Houten’s attorney, adding that he plans  to appeal the judge’s decision.

Van Houten’s journey into the infamous cult, which is detailed in court documents, began in the late 1960s when she met Charles Manson.

She moved into Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth and became indoctrinated in Manson’s obsessions, including the idea of an apocalyptic race war called “Helter Skelter.” To trigger the war, Manson and his followers came up with a scheme: They’d commit gruesome killings of white people in hopes of inciting violence against blacks.

On Aug. 9, 1969, cult members murdered five people, including Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of film director Roman Polanski.

Van Houten didn’t participate in the initial killings and later said that she felt “left out.” The next day, according to court documents, Manson asked her “if she was crazy enough to believe in him and what he was doing.”

“Yes,” she responded.

That night, members of the cult — this time Van Houten came along — prowled for victims, eventually targeting the Los Feliz home of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Inside the house, Van Houten put a pillowcase over Rosemary LaBianaca’s head, wrapped a lamp cord around her neck and stabbed her in the lower back 16 times. Another cult member had stabbed the woman first and Van Houten has said that she thought the victim was probably dead before she stabbed her.

Before leaving the home, Van Houten changed into the dead woman’s clothes and drank chocolate milk from the couple’s refrigerator. Another cult member stabbed the woman’s husband to death and carved the word “War” into his stomach.

Over the years, Van Houten — who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees behind bars — has asked to be released on parole. She was denied 19 times before a two-person panel in April granted her request.

Although the crime was “atrocious, cruel and monstrous,” the panel ruled, Van Houten “no longer posed an unreasonable risk of danger to society.” The commissioners cited her “sterling” prison record, her age at the time of the crime — 19 — and Manson’s powers of manipulation.

Cory LaBianca, who was 21 when her father and stepmother were slain, told The Times in April that she strongly opposed Van Houten’s release.

“We still suffer our loss,” she said. “My father will never be paroled. My stepmother will never get her life back.”

Brown denied parole in July, calling the slayings one of the “most notorious crimes in American history.” 

Although Van Houten had matured, Brown said he still had concerns about her “inability to explain her willing participation” in the murders, citing Van Houten’s earlier statements that she was “less culpable” than other cult members. He also noted that Van Houten had bragged after the slaying that stabbing was “fun.”

Pfeiffer said he hadn’t spoken to Van Houten on Thursday, but described his client as patient. When Ryan asked for an extra week to issue his ruling, Pfeiffer recalled his client saying, “I’m glad he’s taking the time to look at it carefully.”

Charles Manson, 81, and other members of the cult remain in prison.

marisa.gerber@latimes.com

For more news from the Los Angeles County courts, follow me on Twitter: @marisagerber

UPDATES:

7:05 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Van Houten’s attorney.

This article was originally published at 5 p.m.

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