CHINO, Calif. (CBSNewYork/AP) — Leslie Van Houten, the youngest of Charles Manson’s murderous followers, was granted parole by a state board Wednesday, though California’s governor can still block her release as he has done before.
Van Houten, who was 19 when she killed for Manson during a series of murders that terrorized Los Angeles over the summer of 1969, appeared before a parole panel for the 21st time.
The decision now goes through a process of review in which Gov. Jerry Brown may uphold, reverse or modify the decision. He could also send the matter to the full Board of Parole Hearings, or take no action, in which case the parole decision would stand.
A similar panel at the California Institution for Women in Chino, where Van Houten is incarcerated, granted her parole last year but was overruled by the governor.
In reversing that panel in July o last year, Brown said Van Houten had failed to adequately explain how a model teenager from a privileged Southern California family could have turned into a ruthless killer. He said Van Houten’s “inability to explain her willing participation in such horrific violence” leads him to believe she remains an unreasonable risk to society.
On Wednesday, the panel grilled her for two hours on how she could address the governor’s concerns.
“I’ve had a lot of therapy trying to answer that question myself,” she said.
She added, “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.”
When the panel announced its decision, Van Houten smiled.
“Thank you very much I really appreciate it,” said the frail-looking, gray-haired prisoner who attended the hearing on crutches because of a knee injury suffered in a fall.
Her attorney, Rich Pfeiffer, expressed relief afterward, saying he believed they had addressed the governor’s concerns. “My hope is he’s going to follow the law and let his commissioners do their job,” he said.
Pfeiffer said his client was relieved and happy. “I’m getting her out of here. That’s not an issue. The question is when,” he said.
Van Houten has candidly described how she joined several other members of the “Manson Family” in killing Los Angeles grocer Leno La Bianca and his wife, Rosemary, in their home on Aug. 9, 1969.
The couple was killed a day after other so-called “Manson family” members murdered actress Sharon Tate, pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, and four others. The killings were the start of what Manson believed was a coming race war. He dubbed it “Helter Skelter” after Paul McCartney’s song from the Beatles’ White Album.
Van Houten was not with Manson followers for the Tate murder.
Charlie Rose interviewed Manson for CBS News about the murders in 1986.
Rose: “What did you think about Sharon Tate and her unborn baby?”
Manson: “What did I think about it? It’s not my world! I don’t live in that world!”
Rose: “So you don’t care?”
Manson: “Care?! What the hell does that mean, care?!”
But in Van Houten’s past parole hearings, she has repeatedly expressed remorse for her involvement.
“You can never make it right, and I sincerely apologize,” she said in a 2002 hearing.
At her parole hearing last year, Van Houten said she helped hold down Rosemary La Bianca while another Manson follower stabbed her repeatedly. She then took up a knife herself and added more than a dozen stab wounds.
“I don’t let myself off the hook. I don’t find parts in any of this that makes me feel the slightest bit good about myself,” she said.
Since she was incarcerated more than 40 years ago, Van Houten has been a model prisoner and earned college degrees.
Relatives of the La Biancas spoke emotionally Wednesday as they argued against parole for Van Houten, saying they don’t believe she has really ever accepted responsibility for what she did.
“No member of the Manson family deserves parole, ever,” said nephew Louis Smaldino. “She is a total narcissist and only thinks of herself and not the damage she has done.”
The La Biancas’ oldest grandson, Tony LaMantagne, also addressed the panel, his voice breaking as he noted he’s about turn 44, the same age his grandfather was when he was killed.
“Please see to it that this fight doesn’t have to happen every year for the rest of our lives,” he said.
Sharon Tate’s sister, Debra Tate, told the panel she believes parole should be granted to those who have been rehabilitated, but she doesn’t think Van Houten has been.
The victims’ family members left before the panel announced its decision.
Members of the Tate and La Bianca families have argued repeatedly against granting parole to her or any other Manson follower who took part in the killings.
None has been freed, and one, Susan Atkins, died in prison in 2009. Manson, now 82, remains behind bars.
After Van Houten was tentatively granted parole last year, Debra Tate gathered 140,000 petition signatures opposing her release.
Van Houten was both the youngest and also seemingly the most unlikely member of Manson’s so-called family.
She had been a high school homecoming princess, athlete and cheerleader before dropping out of school and joining the ragtag band of ersatz hippies who considered Manson, a career con man and petty criminal, to be a Christ-like figure.
She has testified that the trauma of her parents’ divorce, her teen pregnancy and other problems led her to drop out of school, run away from home, become involved in drugs and eventually join Manson’s cult.
In an attempt to bolster her chances for release, Van Houten’s attorney put another former Manson follower, Catherine Share, on the witness stand at a court hearing in Los Angeles last week at which she testified Van Houten was so young and impressionable that she was afraid to leave the cult.
“Some people could not leave. I was one of them that could not leave,” said Share, who added Manson threatened to have her tortured and killed if she tried.
Share, who didn’t take part in the killings, added she believes Van Houten was also afraid to leave. She said she regretted encouraging her to join the cult.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)