Leslie Van Houten, a member of the death cult led by Charles Manson, was convicted of two counts of first-degree murder in 1971 and quite deservedly sentenced to death. But she is not only still alive — outrageously, she was just released from prison.
Van Houten’s life was spared when in 1972, the California Supreme Court ruled it violated the state’s constitution and the state resentenced everyone on death row to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Capital punishment was later reinstated, but not retroactively for murderers whose sentences had been reduced. In 2016, California voters vociferously reiterated their support for the death penalty by passing a proposition to speed up executions of convicted murderers, shortening the long appeals process.
Now, rather than letting Van Houten rot in prison for the rest of her life, the California Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 in May that she should be released on parole because of her “extraordinary rehabilitative efforts, insight, realistic parole plans, support from family and friends” and good behavior in prison.
Van Houten’s prison accomplishments included receiving bachelor’s and master’s degrees, but none of this should matter. If it keeps beasts busy in prison, that’s fine, but the truth is that prisons aren’t in the business of rehabilitation, especially for those who commit heinous crimes. Prisons are in the business of punishing criminals, keeping them off the streets, and deterring crime.
Even if Van Houten spent her years in prison getting three doctorate degrees and caring for sick puppies, she couldn’t erase her monstrous crimes or bring her tortured murder victims back to life. The children of murder victims, like the LaBianca children who found their parents’ mutilated bodies, suffer for the rest of their lives, losing forever the love and guidance of their parents. The death penalty for the monsters who destroy lives is true justice and a benevolent action for the loved ones left behind. For beasts like Van Houten and her pals, life in prison without any possibility of release is the very least society should expect from our justice system.
Van Houten’s murder victims, Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, never had a chance to pursue more accomplishments, happiness, or to be there for their children. Leno was 44, the son of Italian immigrants, a veteran of World War II Army service in Europe, and a supermarket executive. Rosemary, who was about 39, was born in Mexico to parents who either died or abandoned her, and grew up in an orphanage before being adopted at age 12 in Arizona. She worked as a waitress before opening a successful dress shop.
Van Houten held Rosemary LaBianca down with a pillowcase over her head as other members of the Manson cult stabbed their helpless victim in August 1969 after breaking into the LaBianca home. Van Houten testified at her trial that she then grabbed a knife and joined in the attack, stabbing Rosemary about 16 times.
At her trial, Van Houten joined co-defendant Patricia Krenwinkel in trying to disrupt the proceedings by yelling at prosecutors and giggling as the gruesome murders of the LaBiancas were described. Yes, that was 53 years ago, but remember the jury felt the death penalty was the appropriate sentence. Just because you happen to live a long time in prison does not erase your obscene crimes and the debt you owe society.
The appeals court ruling to release Van Houten overturned a decision by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom rejecting her parole application. Newsom had every right to appeal that decision to the California Supreme Court, but his spokeswoman announced July 7 that the governor, while disappointed, will not appeal the ruling because “efforts to appeal are unlikely to succeed.”
Seriously? What kind of leader gives up on a cause he truly believes in when faced with tough odds? The American Revolution seemed unlikely to succeed in 1776. Ending slavery seemed unlikely to succeed at the dawn of the Civil War. Defeating Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and Fascist Italy seemed unlikely in 1941. Even figuring out who killed Sharon Tate, her friends, and the La Biancas seemed unlikely to succeed. Pursuing the difficult and yes, the righteous but “unlikely” requires courage and leadership, attributes Newsom simply does not possess.
This debacle in itself is a horrific turn of events. But it is also representative of our much larger political and cultural deterioration. Newsom’s abandonment of the effort to keep Van Houten in prison is emblematic of pro-crime policies promoted and embraced by Democratic officials around the nation, who seem excited by the chaos, violence, and fear they engender.
Ignoring the will of voters, Newsom imposed a moratorium on the death penalty in California in 2019, granting reprieves to 737 convicted murderers, including notorious beasts. Moreover, Newsom’s action exposed how he lied to the voters of California to get elected. As a candidate a year earlier, his spokesman said Newsom would enforce the death penalty law.
Meanwhile, Van Houten was “thrilled and she’s overwhelmed” when she learned that her 53 years in prison would soon end. I bet she is. Yet anyone who truly understood and accepted responsibility for actions like hers would also understand how repugnant it is to fight for release.
I’m far more sympathetic to the reaction of Leno LaBianca’s daughter. Responding to the news that Van Houten will soon be free, Cory LaBianca, who is now 75, said: “My family and are heartbroken because we’re once again reminded of all the years that we have not had my father and my stepmother with us. My children and my grandchildren never got an opportunity to get to know either of them, which has been a huge void for my family.”
The now-elderly children of the LaBiancas must now live with the terrible pain of knowing Van Houten is enjoying a life of freedom, unlike their brutally murdered parents.