Wednesday, March 3, 2004
C.A. Overturns Ruling in Manson ‘Family’ Member Parole Bid
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A San Bernardino Superior Court judge’s order that the state Board of Prison Terms reconsider its denial of parole to convicted killer Leslie Van Houten has been overturned by the Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Retired Judge Bob N. Krug, assigned by the chief justice, applied the wrong standard when he held that the board had failed to balance the heinousness of Van Houten’s crimes against her subsequent efforts at rehabilitation, the justices ruled Monday.
Van Houten, Charles Manson, and three other members of “The Family,” Manson’s collection of ‘60s counter-culture advocates who sought to create a race war in America with the expectation of rising to leadership in its aftermath, are serving life sentences for multiple murders.
Van Houten’s original conviction and sentence of death was overturned because her attorney disappeared in mid-trial. Her second trial ended with a hung jury, and the third trial resulted in concurrent life terms.
The defendant, 19 at the time of the killings, admitted her involvement in the August 1969 murders of Leno and Rosemary La Bianca in their Cielo Drive home. One day earlier, actress Sharon Tate and four others were murdered at the home Tate rented with her husband, director Roman Polanski, who was in Europe at the time.
Van Houten was convicted of the La Bianca murders. She was not present during the Tate murders but was convicted of conspiracy to commit them.
Rosemary La Bianca was stabbed a total of 42 times, and Van Houten said at various times that she had herself stabbed the woman 14 or 16 times. Another Family member testified at Van Houten’s trial that the defendant admitted stabbing La Bianca after she was already dead and said “the more she did it the more fun it was.”
Van Houten became eligible for parole in 1978, but has been turned down by the board 13 times. She filed her petition for habeas corpus after being turned down in 2000, arguing that the board failed to give consideration to evidence that she has received consistently positive evaluations, has participated in self-improvement, service, education, and religious programs, and has a place to live and a job waiting if she is released.
Krug agreed. In his June 2002 decision he said the board had not cited “any evidence in the record from which it can be determined factually why the [board] found that the gravity of the crime outweighed the other factors to be considered.”
Failing to weigh the positive factors, he said, effectively converted Van Houten’s term into “a sentence of life without parole, a sentence unauthorized by law.”
But Presiding Justice Manuel Ramirez, writing Monday for the Court of Appeal, said that the courts must uphold the board’s exercise of its discretion to find an inmate unsuitable for parole as long as there is “some evidence” to support it. And that evidence can come solely from a review of the circumstances of the crime, Ramirez said.
The standard, he explained, is the same as that used to review the governor’s veto of a board decision to grant parole, as set forth in In re Rosenkrantz (2002) 29 Cal.4th 616. The Rosenkrantz court upheld former Gov. Gray Davis’ findings that an inmate convicted of second degree murder was unfit for parole, and held that evidence of circumstances that might have supported a first degree murder conviction was a proper basis for the governor’s decision.
Parole, the court said, may be denied solely on the basis of the facts of the crime when the inmate committed “particularly egregious acts beyond the minimum necessary to sustain” the conviction.
That standard was met by the board in the Van Houten case, Ramirez said.
The record of Van Houten’s 13 parole hearings, the jurist said, supports the board’s findings that the murders were “cruel and callous”; that they had an “inexplicable or very trivial” motive; that the La Biancas’ bodies were mutilated; and that Van Houten and the others sought to create unrest by making the killing appear racially motivated “by writing comments on the walls to make it look as if blacks had committed this crime in order to perpetuate the helter skelter as it was described by Charles Manson.”
The case is In re Van Houten, 04 S.O.S. 1079.
Copyright 2004, Metropolitan News Company