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Is It Time To Let The Manson Family Out Of Prison?

Leslie Van Houten, a convicted murderer and former follower of infamous cult leader Charles Manson, has had her parole vetoed by California’s Governor for the third time earlier this month.

It has been nearly 50 years since the cult’s infamous murders, most notably the killing of a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends in a horrific home invasion, as well as the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca.

Van Houten was involved in the latter, holding down Mrs LaBianca while her fellow cult member, Patricia Krenwinkel, did most of the stabbing.

Leslie Van Houten at her 2017 parole hearing. (Image: AAP)

Following the death of Manson in 2017, and the fact that many former followers such as Van Houten now express remorse for their actions, the question of parole has frequently been raised.

Should we show compassion to horrific murderers who were once brainwashed in a cult?

Who were the Manson Family?

The Manson Family was a desert commune and cult led by petty criminal Charles Manson who masterminded a wave of terror in California in the late 1960s.

The cult was based around hippie culture, where followers – most of whom were young women -- habitually used hallucinogenic drugs, committed crimes and followed Manson’s twisted teachings of a dystopian future.

Charles Manson is escorted to his arraignment on conspiracy-murder charges in connection with the Sharon Tate murder case, 1969. (Image: AAP)

Manson’s followers committed murders under the belief that America was headed towards an apocalyptic battle between white and black people due to the growth of the civil rights movement and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr (his so-called ‘Helter Skelter’ prediction inspired by Beatles lyrics).

In the words of Manson prosecutor and true crime author Vinceent Bugliosi, “Charlie interpreted [the lyrics of ‘Helter Skelter’] to mean that the Beatles were telling blackie to get guns and fight whitey.”

This bizarre, racist ideology justified the Tate and LaBianca murders as means to accelerate Armageddon. In Manson’s mind, this was the necessary ‘opening shot’ to be heard around hippiedom.

Sharon Tate (here with her husband Roman Polanski at their wedding) was murdered by members of the Manson Family. (Image: Getty)

Many of Manson’s young female followers, including Van Houten, Krenwinkel and Susan Atkins, still supported Manson even when they were all convicted on murder and conspiracy charges.

In an infamous photo, Van Houten, Krenwinkel and Atkins are seen with an X carved into each of their foreheads as they walk to be sentenced to death (a sentence subsequently commuted to life in prison).

From left: Atkins, Krenwinkel and Van Houten walk to court to appear for their roles in the 1969 cult killings of seven people, including pregnant actress Sharon Tate. (Image: AAP)
Left to right: Atkins, Krenwinkel and Van Houten laugh after receiving the death sentence for their part in the murders. (Image: Getty)
A bad trip

Most of Manson’s followers have since changed their beliefs and now openly criticise the cult and the murders.

Krenwinkel has publicly claimed that she was suffering from a form of battered wife syndrome at the time of the murders due to the influence of Manson and other male members of the cult.

Atkins became a Born-Again Christian whilst in prison and expressed incredible remorse for her actions. She died in prison in 2009.

Van Houten, in her bid for freedom, has number of unlikely supporters -- one of the most vocal being queer filmmaker John Waters.

Waters wrote a lengthy essay in support of Van Houten in his 2010 book ‘Role Models’, arguing that: “[she] has served more time than any Nazi war criminal who was not sentenced to death at Nuremberg… how sorry is sorry enough?”

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Free to go?

To date, the only Manson family member to be granted parole is Steve Dennis "Clem" Grogan, released in 1985, who was given leniency due to his borderline mental disability and frequent intoxication during the crimes.

Van Houten has passed the initial hurdle for parole in getting a recommendation from the parole board, but would need to get around the political pressure which has caused Californian officials to veto her release.

California has granted parole to those convicted of murder in the past, but the infamy of the Manson case lingers over any chance of success. Unhelpful also is the release of two mainstream films about the case this year, one by provocative filmmaker Quentin Tarantino.

Sharing the screen with Brad Pitt (left) and Leonardo DiCaprio (right), Margot Robbie stars as ill-fated actress Sharon Tate in Quentin Tarantino's film 'Once Upon A Time In Hollywood' (Image: Getty)

On the face of things, it appears ludicrous that public officials see the 69-year-old Van Houten as an ongoing risk to the public, with an appellate decision likely to be made in July on whether Governor Newsom’s decision had sufficient grounds.

However, given a lack of public support for Van Houten’s release, a decision granting parole seems unlikely.

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