LOS ANGELES (CN) — Leslie Van Houten, former member of the "Manson Family," may soon be leaving prison after more than 50 years behind bars as the California Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that Governor Gavin Newsom was wrong to reverse her grant of parole.
Newsom had previously reversed a 2020 decision by the state's parole board that Van Houten, 73, was suitable to leave prison. A trial court upheld Newsom's choice — but in its split decision on Tuesday, a three-judge appeals court panel reversed him.
"We review the Governor’s decision under the highly deferential 'some evidence' standard, in which even a modicum of evidence is sufficient to uphold the reversal," Associate Justice Helen Bendix wrote for the majority. "Even so, we hold on this record, there is no evidence to support the Governor’s conclusions."
Van Houten is currently serving concurrent sentences of seven years to life for the 1969 murders of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, which she committed with other members of a cult led by Charles Manson. She has been deemed suitable for parole five times, but each time Newsom or his predecessor Governor Jerry Brown stepped in to reverse the parole board's decision.
The last time Newsom denied her parole was last year, but Tuesday's appeal concerns a separate 2020 determination by Newsom that Van Houten wasn't fit to be let out of prison.
In that instance, Newsom said he found lacking Van Houten's explanation of how she fell under Manson's spell and committed the crimes he demanded. He also found "gaps in Ms. Van Houten’s insight or candor, or both,” and indicated that she still might be danger to society, according to the appellate court's ruling.
The appeals court disagreed. "The Governor’s refusal to accept Van Houten’s explanation amounts to unsupported intuition," the majority wrote. "The Governor’s finding of inconsistencies between Van Houten’s statements now and at the time of the murders fails to account for the decades of therapy, self-help programming, and reflection Van Houten has undergone in the past 50 years."
Representatives of Newsom and the California Attorney General's Office didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the ruling.
Van Houten joined the commune Manson had set up at the Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, California, in 1968. Manson, who died in prison five and a half years ago, dominated and manipulated the members of the Family, convincing them of his apocalyptic fantasies and goals through a combination of isolation, dependence, fear, drugs and sex.
The cult is perhaps most infamous for the murders of actress Sharon Tate and four other people the morning of Aug. 9, 1969. Van Houten didn't participate in those notorious murders, but she did join Manson and other members of the Family the following night when they killed the LaBianca couple, who were randomly selected by Manson.
For her role in those killings, Van Houten was initially convicted on two counts of first degree murder in 1971 and sentenced to death. At a later trial after her first conviction was overturned, she was instead sentenced to concurrent life sentences with the possibility of parole.
At a 2020 parole hearing, the board was convinced, as it had been on three prior occasions, that Van Houten was suitable to leave prison. Her explanation of how she came under Manson's influence and got involved with the 1969 murder spree showed sufficient insight into her actions and remorse, according to the court's summary of the hearing. The board also thought she had been a model prisoner.
Newsom, on the other hand, concluded that “given the extreme nature of the crime," Van Houten had not "sufficiently demonstrated that she has come to terms with the totality of the factors that led her to participate in the vicious Manson Family killings."
Presiding Justice Frances Rothschild agreed with Newsom and dissented from the majority opinion on Tuesday, arguing there was still some evidence that Van Houten had minimized her role in the murders of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca.
In that case, the appeals court ultimately upheld Newsom's reversal of the parole board. Rothschild concluded the record before the court this time wasn't so different from that 2019 appeal.
"In both 2017 and 2020, Van Houten indicated she would use a hypothetical ability to rewrite the past first to change the circumstances in her life as a teenager, rather than undo the murders she committed," Rothschild said. "In her 2020 response, she merely appended to that response that she would also take steps to prevent the murders."
"This response," Rotschild wrote, "continues to suffer from the same lack of insight we identified in 2019." The third judge on the panel, Associate Justice Victoria Chaney, apparently disagreed, joining in Bendix in the majority.Follow @edpettersson
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