Leslie Van Houten: Natural Born Killer, or Victim?

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Photo: Leslie van Houten, circa 19 years old

The recent news that Leslie Van Houten has been approved for parole after almost 50 years of incarceration has been met with huge debate worldwide.

The former Charles Manson follower was born into a middle-class but dysfunctional existence. Her parents divorced while she was quite young, and Van Houten eventually transformed from wholesome all-American Homecoming Queen into a completely divergent being; her life changed irrevocably. After dabbling with various drugs, further misdemeanours led to her involvement with Charles Manson, and down the path which would eventually ruin her life and those of numerous others.

In 1968, she was introduced to the “Christ-like” Manson by her new-found friends, Bobby Beausoil and Catherine “Gyspy” Share. Soon, Van Houten joined “The Family” at their ranch in Los Angeles. Charles Manson, who had already been convicted multiple times for various felonies, was also bitter and hateful, having tried but failed to secure a music career (despite having one of his songs recorded by The Beach Boys). His talent for manipulation turned this following, his “Family”, into a cult – a conduit for his malevolence, which saw him carry out crimes through them.

The Family listened to The Beatles, to Manson’s predictions of a “race war”, and to his plans to incite one, starting with the murders of Sharon Tate and others, in which Van Houten was not involved. She did however play an active role in the following night’s bloodshed, when Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were brutally assaulted and murdered.

The “Family” were finally arrested and charged towards the end of 1969, leading to a trial widely regarded as a chaotic circus, due mostly to the behaviour of the defendants, in particular Van Houten and her numerous attempts to exculpate Manson.

Van Houten was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder, and received the death penalty. This was later commuted to life with the possibility for parole, following a ban on capital punishment in 1972.

While imprisoned at California Institute for Women in Frontera, California, Van Houten married and got divorced, obtained a degree in counselling, and participated in regular counselling sessions for other inmates. On 6, September 2017 the board granted her parole a second time, starting a 150-day review process, during which California Governor Jerry Brown will decide whether or not to release her, having already reversed a successful parole hearing the previous year.

So, what of a pending decision to grant parole to a person who is causing such a divide in public opinion? There are those who say that her involvement in one of the most heinous crimes in American history is enough to keep her locked up for life, as called for by her sentence. Certainly, the remaining family, associates, and friends of those killed would be of this opinion. She did directly cause the violent death of another human, and so the argument might be that this can never be mitigated simply by reason of manipulation and subsequent “good behaviour”.

Then there is the suggestion that Van Houten was a vulnerable young girl who, though born into a comfortable life, had experienced a difficult childhood, which had led to bad decisions including drug taking and a downward-spiral lifestyle. If she was “groomed” by Manson and moulded through brainwashing and drugging into becoming one of many killer puppets, the arguing point arises that she was not fully aware of her actions and their consequences while in Manson’s thrall.

Manson himself has never shown any outward signs of remorse, but Van Houten has, and told her two-person parole panel, “To tell you the truth, the older I get the harder it is to deal with all of this, to know what I did, how it happened”.

Is she likely to be a threat to society now, if released – or is that even the point? Does remorse and turning her life around in prison exonerate her to a degree, if she was indeed the victim of a clever manipulator? Should she be afforded the opportunity as with any other released prisoner to try and integrate back into society to live the rest of her life, and attempt to reconcile with her past as best she can?

Had she never met Manson, one has to wonder if she would ever have committed any crime, compared to the man himself – a multiple felon, with a dogged hunger for disorder and carnage. Perhaps she was a victim too, a troubled young woman who became radicalised by a man with whom she was infatuated, and for whom she would have done anything.

Even if she had turned down a similar path, but never known him, would public opinion be so harsh if she had been convicted of crimes never connected to the notorious Manson?

It is hard to have a black and white opinion on a story comprised of such a spectrum of events and chaotic circumstances. What is certain is that a decision needs to be made and whatever that decision is, it will be one of the most talked about points for many years to come.

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