Leslie Van Houten, Member of the Charles Manson “Family”, Approved for Parole

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The vicious killers that crawled out of Spahn Ranch in the summer of 1969 at Charles Manson’s behest to kill innocent people didn’t just terrify California, but the entire country. The addled, apocalyptic death cult these murderers and their master were the faces of — a cult that embraced a pseudo-philosophy that had something to do with the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” and a race war — was terrifying precisely because it made no sense. The Manson “family” became another emblem of the strange years known as the ’60s, and many of its members are in prison to this day.

But Leslie Van Houten, a former member of Manson family who killed a married couple almost 50 years ago and wrote messages of revolution on the walls in their blood, may soon be on her way out. Hope for Van Houten came at the conclusion of a five-hour hearing at the California Institution for Women in Corona on Thursday, when a panel recommended parole for the 66-year-old convicted killer. She had previously been denied 19 times.

Van Houten said the decision made her “numb.”

“I don’t let myself off the hook,” Van Houten told the parole panel, according to the Associated Press. “I don’t find parts in any of this that makes me feel the slightest bit good about myself.”

Unlike the 81-year-old Manson — who, even as he approached his ninth decade, called himself a “prisoner of the political system” and was caught with a contraband cellphone — Van Houten has long been known as a model inmate. Her attorney, Richard Pfeiffer, told the Los Angeles Times that 18 psychiatrists who have evaluated her over three decades found her suitable for parole.

“The opposition to parole has always been the name Manson,” Pfeiffer said. “A lot of people who oppose parole don’t know anything about Leslie’s conduct. Her role was bad. Everyone’s was. But they don’t know what she’s done since then and all of the good she’s done.” Commissioner Ali Zarrinnam told Van Houten that her “behavior in prison speaks for itself … 46 years and not a single serious rule violation.”

Van Houten was 19 when she participated in the murders of Rosemary and Leno La Bianca, a supermarket executive. Before the panel, Van Houten recounted how she held Rosemary down with a pillow and lamp cord as Charles “Tex” Watson, another Manson member, stabbed her. Then he passed the knife to her, and Van Houten proceeded to stab Rosemary 14 times, later using the blood of the slain La Biancas to write messages on the walls of their home. The word “WAR” was carved on Leno La Bianca’s stomach.

“I took one of the knives … and we started stabbing and cutting up the lady,” Van Houten testified in 1971, as the Los Angeles Times noted. At a parole hearing in 1991, Van Houten said of Manson: “I thought he was Jesus Christ.”

Van Houten, who grew up in a Los Angeles suburb, was a homecoming queen who fell in with the counterculture. Her parents divorced when she was 14, and her mother forced her to have an abortion when she got pregnant not long after. As Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi recounted in the true-crime classic “Helter Skelter,” a psychiatrist who interviewed Van Houten called her “a spoiled little princess” unable “to suffer frustration and delay of gratification” who once beat her adopted sister with a shoe.

“It is quite clear that Leslie Van Houten was a psychologically loaded gun which went off as a consequence of the complex intermeshing of highly unlikely and bizarre circumstances,” Joel Simon Hochman said.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post, Yanan Wang and Justin Wm. Moyer