Given the obvious proclivities of the California Board of Parole Hearings, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that multiple “Manson Family” members are and will soon be up for release, just short of 50 years after they helped carry out the most notorious murders of the 20th Century.
They pose a test for new Gov. Gavin Newsom, now that he’s decided the more than 700 felons on California’s Death Row deserve to live no matter how heinous their crimes. The possibility that more than one of mastermind/guru Charles Manson’s killer gang members could soon be back on the streets was unheard of just a few years ago – and should still be.
Manson himself died a convict in late 2017, never having had a realistic hope for freedom.
But some Parole Board members who voted during the winter to free Bobby Beausoleil and Leslie Van Houten because of good behavior in prison are too young to remember the fear that suffused much of California during the “Family’s” reign of terror. So is Newsom.
And more Manson acolytes likely will be recommended for freedom soon. Both Bruce Davis and Charles (Tex) Watson have applied several times, thwarted only when past governors Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed Parole Board actions.
Davis’ next chance at parole comes in August, while Watson gets a new try in 2021.
This gives California’s new Gov. Gavin Newsom – the first governor not old enough to have been sentient during the Manson crime spree – an opportunity to make a strong statement about how he’ll treat perpetrators of the most heinous crimes, even if he won’t tolerate executing them.
Brown used one parole attempt by Davis, known as Manson’s right-hand man, to make a statement about gruesome criminals. "In rare circumstances," Brown wrote, "a murder is so heinous that it provides evidence of dangerousness by itself."
Will Newsom make a similar declaration? Or will he cater to more forgiving Californians by allowing the Beausoleil and Van Houten paroles? Either way, there will be implications for Newsom’s future in state and national politics, especially in combination with his death penalty move.
Newsom was a toddler during the public uncertainty that accompanied the ultra-bloody Manson crimes, including the murders of actress Sharon Tate and several friends in her home in the Benedict Canyon area near Beverly Hills and the next-day killings of grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles, several miles away.
Beausoleil and Davis carried out the murder of musician Gary Hinman a bit earlier, Beausoleil slashing Hinman to death on Manson’s direct order in the wake of a drug deal gone bad. Beausoleil’s parole recommendation came on his 19th try for release.
Van Houten’s role in the week’s-long Manson slaughter spree was very different. She wasn’t present for the Tate killings because she stayed on the Spahn Movie Ranch in Chatsworth where the gang squatted for months without permission. But the next night, the former homecoming queen from Monrovia joined Watson and others as they burst in on the LaBiancas.
Court testimony showed Watson stabbed Rosemary LaBiana with a bayonet, then handed a knife to Van Houten. She testified she stabbed her victim in the back at least 14 times, then used blood from her and her husband to scrawl messages implying a race war was imminent.
“I take responsibility…I looked to men for my value and I didn’t speak up,” she said in a parole hearing. Van Houten later led self-help groups for women prisoners.
Rosemary LaBianca never got a chance to do anything like that, her life snuffed out in large part by Van Houten.
Van Houten and Beausoleil now want to become just the second and third Manson gang murderers out on parole. So far, Steve (Clem) Grogan, released in 1985 after leading police to the dismembered body of movie stuntman Donald (Shorty) Shea on the Spahn ranch, is the lone gang member to have been released.
Now it’s up to Newsom to decide whether to set more elderly Mansonites free in California. If he says yes, the choice, along with his death penalty reprieves, will follow him for a long time.