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Leslie Van Houten reacts after hearing she is eligible for parole during a hearing on Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2017 at the California Institution for Women in Corona, Calif. Van Houten, the youngest of Charles Manson's murderous followers, was granted parole by a California board Wednesday. (Photo: Stan Lim/Los Angeles Daily News via AP, Pool)

A California state parole panel recommended the release of Leslie Van Houten, the youngest “Manson Family” member convicted in the infamous 1969 murder spree, on Wednesday.

Van Houten, now 68, will have to be approved for release by Gov. Jerry Brown. She was previously found suitable for release in April 2016—and denied release three months later by Brown.

But new evidence was introduced into the legal proceedings at a less-publicized hearing last week that may change the circumstances of Van Houten’s story—and potentially shed new light on the drug-fueled killing rampage of Charles Manson and his numerous followers, none of whom have been released from behind bars alive.

In the background are the infamous “Tex Watson Tapes”—recordings of a Manson Family killer telling his lawyer how “Helter Skelter” went down over two murderous nights in 1969.

“What happened at the hearing set the foundations for the governor’s review,” Rich Pfeiffer, Van Houten’s parole attorney, told Forensic Magazine.

The parole appearance Wednesday was Van Houten’s 22nd time. It was a “youthful offender” hearing, since she took part in the LaBianca killings she was 19, and younger than the California threshold of 23. The recommendation to grant her parole is another first tentative step toward freedom, Pfeiffer said. (State officials must review the finding, and then Brown gets 30 additional days to make a decision).

But last week’s separate Los Angeles Superior Court hearing produced two pivotal developments in Van Houten’s bid for freedom, according to Pfeiffer. The appearance was what is known as a “Franklin hearing”—an opportunity for youthful offenders seeking release to establish an evidentiary record of their immaturity at the time of their crimes (a legal procedure established by a California Supreme Court decision last year, People v. Franklin).

“Even the day of the hearing, they were trying to stop the hearing,” said Pfeiffer.

CATHERINE SHARE’S STORY

During the Franklin hearing, former Manson follower Catherine Share testified to establish that Van Houten’s escape would not have been easy—and that Manson’s psychological hold over his members was nearly inescapable, Pfeiffer recounted.

The court testimony of Share, who served five years in prison for crimes other than the Manson homicides, essentially refutes the testimony of Barbara Hoyt, another Manson follower who was a witness at the initial trials.

Hoyt’s testimony was also one of the primary reasons cited by Gov. Brown in denying Van Houten parole last year. That Hoyt testimony has previously held that the Manson Family members were free to come and go from Spahn Ranch, their desert compound home, as they pleased.

(A 1999 interview Hoyt gave to a reporter, which seems to change some of her testimony about the freedom of the Manson Family members, was also added to the court record, Pfeiffer added.)

THE TEX WATSON TAPES

The “Tex Watson Tapes” were another subject at the Franklin hearing.

The recordings are 20 hours of Charles “Tex” Watson talking to his attorney in 1969, before he was convicted. The “Tapes” were unearthed by a writer named Tom O’Neill in an interview with the attorney, Bill Boyd, in 2008. Originally they were protected under attorney-client privilege—but it was eventually revealed that Boyd had released the tapes to a writer who worked with Watson on a memoir published in 1978. When Boyd died, the tapes became tied up in a bankruptcy proceeding involving the law firm. A U.S. district court judge ruled the recordings are no longer protected in 2013.

Judge William Ryan of the Los Angeles Superior Court asked for the transcript of the recordings—and upon partial review said he found that Van Houten was mentioned more than the four times that had previously been argued by the local district attorney, Pfeiffer said.

The local authorities have also denied access to the recordings based on ongoing criminal investigations. A 2015 letter indicated there were “unsolved crimes Manson Family members are suspected of committing”—and the tapes are a crucial piece of evidence.

But the authorities admitted at last week’s court hearing that no such investigations are currently underway, 48 years after the Manson spree.

Pfeiffer said the recordings could be released in the near future, based on whether they provide new information about the killings, or the law enforcement’s long-running investigation of Manson and his "Family."

“Every shred of evidence in every Manson-related trial is public record—except those tapes,” said Pfeiffer. “They are in play—completely.”

TWO MASSACRES, TWO NIGHTS

Van Houten was the youngest disciple of Charles Manson and his apocalyptic cult, which massacred at least eight people during a drug-fueled crime spree intended to spur a “race war” in the summer of ’69.

But Van Houten and her attorneys have always contended she was different than some of the other killers.

She grew up in an affluent and happy home until her parents’ divorce, according to court records. After that, she was caught up in the currents of the psychedelic drug scene of California in 1968 and 1969. She came to live with Manson and his “Family” less than a year before the murders, records said.

Four Manson Family members entered the Beverly Hills home of director Roman Polanski on Aug. 8, 1969 and killed five people, including Sharon Tate, Polanski’s wife and a rising movie star more than eight months pregnant at the time she was slain.

Van Houten was not part of that massacre.

Instead, she was convicted of taking part in the slaying of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca the next night, as part of the half-dozen intruders in the couple’s Los Feliz home. She was ultimately convicted of restraining Rosemary LaBianca as she was attacked by other Family members—and also stabbing her more than a dozen times in the lower back.

Van Houten was convicted of two counts of felony murder, after three trials. She is serving seven years to life in prison, to run concurrently. (Van Houten was originally sentenced to death like the other Family members. Her attorney died during the first trial, and the second resulted in a hung jury.)

Van Houten was originally one of the most devout Manson followers. But she was also one of the first to denounce the crimes, and express remorse, according to court filings. 

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