FRONTERA — A parole board refused Friday to grant freedom to former Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten after an emotional hearing focusing on the cruelty of the cult killings that landed her in prison 33 years ago.
The ruling came after a prosecutor and the family of victims Leno and Rosemary La Bianca urged the Board of Prison Terms never to grant parole to the now 52-year-old woman who was described as a model prisoner.
“This was a cruel and calculated murder and a matter that demonstrates a disregard for human suffering,” said Sharon Lawin, the board commissioner who chaired the hearing.
Earlier, Van Houten pleaded for her freedom, telling the board she will always bear the sorrow of the murders.
“One of the hardest things in dealing with having contributed to murder is that there’s no restitution, there’s no making it right,” she said.
Van Houten was in handcuffs and shackled around her waist. She wore a gray sweat shirt and sweat pants.
Defense attorney Christie Webb said Van Houten was disappointed, frustrated and saddened by the ruling.
“It’s very difficult to be a 52-year-old woman, a decent person and to be treated in that room like the 19-year-old cult victim she was,” Webb said. “It’s very difficult to hear someone say you should be dead.”
Earlier in the hearing, Louis Smaldino, the nephew of Leno La Bianca, told the board that Van Houten should stay in prison for the rest of her life.
“Miss Van Houten should already be dead for her part in these unprovoked murders,” he said. “Society has been very merciful.”
Turning to Van Houten, he said, “There is no way to make it right. Serve your life sentence with acceptance of what you have done.”
It was Van Houten’s 14th appearance before the parole board. She had been considered the most likely of the Manson followers to win parole after a judge ruled last month that the board had repeatedly failed to give her guidance on what she could do to make herself suitable for release.
Nevertheless, Van Houten was denied parole for at least two more years after the board determined she had not fully expressed remorse.
Lawin said the board was particularly swayed by the fact that the killings were part of a grand plan by Manson to start a race war.
The board did commend Van Houten’s behavior in prison — from working as a chapel clerk to making audio tapes to help other inmates.
“These positive aspects of her behavior, however, do not yet outweigh the factors of unsuitability,” Lawin said.
Lawin recommended Van Houten for continued therapy to better understand the enormity of her crime and its impact.
Van Houten was a 19-year-old disciple of Manson in the summer of 1969 when she participated in the stabbing deaths of the La Biancas in their home in the Los Feliz section of Los Angeles.
They were among nine Los Angeles-area victims slain by the cult of drugged-out followers. Prosecutors said Manson was trying to incite a race war that he believed was prophesied in the Beatles’ song “Helter Skelter.”
Van Houten was not present when followers of Manson killed actress Sharon Tate and four others at the actress’ Beverly Hills mansion. Manson was not at the home, either.
Van Houten, Manson, his chief lieutenant Charles “Tex” Watson, and two other women, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkle, were convicted and sentenced to death for their part in the Tate-La Bianca murders.
The sentences were later commuted to life when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in the 1970s. All five are still behind bars.
During the hearing, Van Houten spoke quietly and directly as she recounted the horrifying facts of the murders that Manson directed.
She recalled that Watson was in the living room killing Leno La Bianca and she was in the bedroom with Rosemary La Bianca.
Asked if she had stabbed the woman, Van Houten said, “Yes I did in the lower torso approximately 14 to 16 times.”
Earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Bob N. Krug admonished the parole board for flatly turning Van Houten down every time based solely on the crime.
Such decisions, he said, ignore Van Houten’s accomplishments in prison and turn her life sentence into life without parole, in violation of the law.
In addition, Krug said that Van Houten had successfully completed every rehabilitation program offered in prison and that her psychiatric evaluations indicate that she is not a present danger to society and should be found suitable for parole.