COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | THOMAS ELIAS

Why Manson and his killers should never go free

Anyone who attended any part of the early-'70s trial of Charles Manson and his murderous followers can't help remembering the pure viciousness of this gang, which killed seven innocents in a misguided bid to start a race war. Helter-Skelter, Manson called it.

Manson was unquestionably the mastermind, a svengali said to have controlled the thoughts and actions of his followers.

But they had options, too. They didn't have to kill their victims, let alone as brutally as they did, stabbing them again and again and again for the sheer thrill of watching more and more blood erupt. They could have left the Manson cult. They could have refused to participate in multiple cold-blooded murders.

And so, while there may be legal and moral problems with the near-blanket no-parole-for-killers policy of Gov. Gray Davis, if it ensures that the entire Manson "Family" stays behind bars, it has some merit.

For later this year, Davis may become the only blockade to freedom for the first of the Manson followers to make a serious bid for parole. That's Leslie Van Houten, an inmate at the California Institution for Women since California abolished the death penalty for a time in the 1970s, causing the sentences of Manson and his followers to be converted to life imprisonment.

The near-blanket Davis policy (he has allowed only two murderers paroled in the last three years, both battered wives) means he offers the Manson group no hope of freedom. By contrast, Republican challenger Bill Simon early this month refused to commit himself to keeping all the Manson murderers behind bars. "You have to take into account all the facts and circumstances of the case," he said.

In Van Houten's instance, one of those facts is that she has been the essence of a model prisoner. She has obtained a bachelor's degree. She tutors other inmates. She's made quilts for homeless women. She's also in the midst of her 14th application for parole.

Van Houten has seemingly done everything but bring her prime victim, Rosemary LaBianca, back to life. Van Houten and several other Manson acolytes fatally stabbed Mrs. LaBianca and her independent grocer husband Leno in 1969 in their Los Angeles home and kept on stabbing (Van Houten from behind, 14 times) until their arms became too tired to continue.

They left behind messages written in the LaBiancas' blood on walls and a refrigerator, trying to mislead police and public into believing the slayings were the work of black militants. Other Manson gang members left similar bloody messages after their massacre of five persons one day earlier at the Bel-Air home of actress Sharon Tate.

This spring, more than 30 years later, the state Board of Prison Terms refused Van Houten's latest bid for parole. Her attorney appealed, and a San Bernardino judge ordered the parole board provide her guidance on what she can do to win her freedom. Her next hearing is set for June 28.

Van Houten has done more than 30 years in prison, her application points out. She's reformed, she says, and is no longer the unrepentant Mansonite who, like her fellow Manson "girls," sliced an X into the center of her forehead during their trial.

Here's what the guidance of the parole board should be: "Nothing you can do, Ms. Van Houten, can ever set you free in this lifetime."

For even if she has repented her crimes, the world knows she was so susceptible to the influence of a mad mind that she could be led to the ultimate in heinous crime. Who can say for sure that if freed, she couldn't be seduced into some new evils by someone else she might encounter? So who can say for sure that she wouldn't be a danger to society?

And then there's the California legal doctrine that prison terms are for punishment, not rehabilitation. If punishment for Manson and his followers is to fit their crimes, none should ever go free, including those with perfect behavior in prison. If they want to repent and do good works, they can do so in custody.

Plus, there's the view of the surviving family members of the victims. Here's what Alice LaBianca, ex-wife of Leno and mother of his children, told the parole board in a 1998 letter:

"Leslie Van Houten chose her own path. She chose to follow the instructions of Charles Manson. She chose drug-crazed killers as her family and she became one of them. But what about my family? When do we get our parole? Sympathy for these killers, and especially this one, is misplaced..."

If Leno and Rosemary LaBianca or Sharon Tate could have spoken from beyond their graves, they couldn't have said it better.


Elias is author of "The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government's Campaign to Squelch It." His email address is thomas.elias@sddt.com.

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