Here’s what you need to know.
1. This Was Her 20th Parole Hearing
Van Houten has been in prison for 44 years, and this week marked her 20th time being denied for parole. She claims she is ready to reenter society, telling the parole board:
I know I did something that is unforgiveable, but I can create a world where I make amends. I’m trying to be someone who lives a life for healing rather than destruction.
2. Her Original Attorney Disappeared During the Trial and Was Found Dead
Von Houten’s original attorney during her murder trial, Ronald Hughes, went missing during a camping trip. His badly disfigured body was later found wedged between two boulders. His cause of death was never determined—though one of Manson’s followers later claimed that the Manson Family had murdered him.
3. She Was Briefly Released From Prison in 1978 During a Retrial
In 1976, Van Houten’s original sentence was thrown out on the grounds of “ineffectual counsel” due to Hughes’ death. This led to a retrial in 1977, which ended in a hung jury as seven jurors voted for guilty of first-degree murder, and five voted for guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter due to her alleged cult brainwashing.
In 1978, she was granted another retrial, but this time she was allowed to be released on bail and spent six months on the outside working as a law clerk in Echo Park, California.
4. Originally Sentenced to be Executed, Von Houten Had Her Death Sentence Commuted
When California temporarily outlawed capital punishment in 1972, all death row inmates who had been sentenced to die before that year had their death sentence commuted and changed to life imprisonment, including such notorious killers as Charles Manson and Robert Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan.
The death penalty was reinstated in California in 1978 after voters passed a proposition repealing the previous ban—though all executions were halted once again in 2006 pending review after irregularities were found in the system.
California’s moratorium on capital punishment is expected to be lifted sometime this year.
5. She Has Become Good Friends With Filmmaker John Waters
In the years since her incarceration, director John Waters struck up a friendship with Van Houten and has been an advocate for her release for many years.
In 2010, Waters devoted a chapter to her in his book Role Models. He opens the chapter like this:
I have a really good friend who was convicted of killing two innocent people when she was nineteen years old on a horrible night of 1969 cult madness. Her name is Leslie Van Houten and I think you would like her as much as I do.
You can read Water’s chapter on Van Houten in an excerpt on the Huffington Post.