A California appeals court on Wednesday questioned whether it has jurisdiction to decide on parole for Charles Manson follower Leslie Van Houten or whether the issue becomes moot after the governor weighs in.
Van Houten's attorney told a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal that his client is remorseful and takes responsibility for her crimes. A state prosecutor said the 69-year-old has placed too much blame on Manson himself.
Van Houten was 19 when she and fellow members of Manson's cult stabbed Los Angeles grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, to death in 1969. The killings took place a day after other so-called Manson family members killed actress Sharon Tate and four others in crimes that shocked the world. Van Houten, who is serving a life sentence, was not involved in the other killings.
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The appeals judges are reviewing a lower court's ruling that denied Van Houten parole last year. Since then, a parole board recommended that she be freed, a decision undergoing a five-month review process before heading to Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The judges wondered whether they still would have jurisdiction to rule if Newsom denies Van Houten parole. Van Houten's attorney, Rich Pfeiffer, told the judges they not only have jurisdiction but a duty to decide, adding that no elected politician will ever agree to Van Houten's parole because of the infamy of the case.
"If the courts don't release Miss Van Houten, she's never going to be released," Pfeiffer said. "The courts are empowered to make difficult decisions, and sometimes unpopular decisions, to be able to enforce the law. That's what courts are there for. Otherwise it turns into mob rule."
Deputy Attorney General Jill VanderBorght said the issue should rest with whatever Newsom decides. She said Pfeiffer's argument that Van Houten is unlikely to get released without a court decision was irrelevant.
"We're only looking at this single instance of parole reversal," she said. "We don't have to think of tomorrow or ever or politics. In fact, the court should not."
The judges gave Pfeiffer and VanderBorght five days to file arguments on the jurisdiction issue. The judges have three months to decide on Van Houten's parole. A parole board has recommended that Van Houten be released three times since 2016, finding that she's no longer a threat to society. Former Gov. Jerry Brown blocked the first two recommendations, and the third is heading to Newsom.
Courts in general can be reluctant to interfere in parole matters, said Samuel Pillsbury, a criminal law professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
"It is highly emotional," Pillsbury said. "The voters have decided the governor should have a veto on this, so the courts would prefer to let this process play out."
If the decision comes down to the governor, Pillsbury agreed that Van Houten has an uphill battle.
"The Manson case is one of a kind," he said. "There's no other case like it in terms of the number of people in California who feel strongly about it, who've lived through it. The entire state and much of the nation still feel some degree of trauma from that, and it makes it a very different kind of case from an elected official's point of view."
In denying Van Houten parole last year, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Ryan found that she would "pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society," citing the brutal nature of the crimes. During one of her parole hearings, Van Houten said the killings were the start of what Manson believed was a coming race war that he dubbed "Helter Skelter," after a Beatles song, and that he had the group prepare to fight and learn to can food so they could go underground and live in a hole in the desert.
Van Houten said she was traveling up and down the California coast when acquaintances led her to Manson. She candidly described how she joined several other members of the group in killing the LaBiancas, carving up Leno LaBianca's body and smearing the couple's blood on the walls. Manson died of natural causes in 2017 at a California hospital while serving a life sentence.