Lost in all the attention given Manson upon his death at 83, is the fate of Leslie Van Houten, who for the second year in a row has been granted parole but awaits a final decision by Gov. Jerry Brown. Last year, he rescinded her parole.
Like the other "Manson girls," Van Houten has spent virtually her entire adult life behind bars for committing murders orchestrated by Manson. It was widely understood that the girls had been effectively brainwashed by the charismatic cult figure, but were held accountable for their own actions in a court of law. She and Patricia Kerwinkel, who was denied parole, have each spent over 40 years in the California penal system, able to escape the death penalty thanks to a 1972 decision by the state supreme court, which declared capital punishment unconstitutional. The other "Manson girl," Susan Atkins, died in prison in 2009.
There were other Manson girls, notably Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who tried to kill President Gerald Ford years later, but they weren't involved in the multiple homicides of 1969 that shocked the nation. Linda Kasabian avoided jail time by serving as the state's key witness against Manson, "Tex" Watson, and the three "girls" who were directly involved in the murders.
If Manson was such a domineering figure and Watson his hulking "right hand," what choice did these girls really have? He very quickly sold them out in an effort to gain his own freedom, claiming they committed the murders of their own free will, and even pushing for a mistrial when Nixon made the huge blunder of weighing in on his case. This soon led the girls and Tex Watson to turn against Manson, but little good it did them in the eyes of the court.
The "girls" didn't stand a chance, especially the way they so proudly paraded themselves before cameras during the trial. America wanted them hanged, and would have gotten its way had not the California Supreme Court stepped in. But, all these years later, few Americans even know who the "Manson girls" are, much less care, which makes you wonder why Van Houten and Kerwinkel are still in prison. Many other killers have gained parole for equally horrendous crimes. Gov. Brown has released 80% of convicted murderers eligible for parole, but not Van Houten. This is the price the girls pay for being involved in one of the most sensational murder sprees in American history.
It also doesn't help that NBC recently aired Aquarius, which referenced the Manson family. I only watched the first episode which I found very dry. Manson was more a fringe figure, haunting the troubled detective Sam Hodiak, as he tried to make sense of all the killings taking place in LA. Murders spiked in 1967, the year Manson formed his family, and continued to grow through the remainder of the 60s. The local police used a mole to infiltrate the drug scene that Hodiak believed was breeding these killers. However, the murder rate was even higher in the 70s an 80s when the Manson family was safely behind bars.
This year, Manson played a prominent role in American Horror Story: Cult, serving as the inspiration for the cult leader Kai Anderson, both played by Evan Peters. Kasabian was portrayed as selling out Manson. Van Houten, Atkins and Kerwinkel were only briefly mentioned by name.
Over the years there have been many other movies and television shows which depicted or were inspired by the Manson family. Numerous rock bands have covered his songs, and Marilyn Manson even took his name from him. Charles Manson had to enjoy the irony of this given it has been largely theorized that the Beach Boys' song, "Never Learn Not to Love," is responsible for sending him over the edge.
As the story goes, Manson had approached Dennis Wilson with his songs, and got him to listen to "Cease to Exist." Wilson apparently didn't think much of it, although not a bad song. A few months later "Never Learn Not to Love" pitched up on the B-side of "Bluebirds on the Mountain." It was apparent not only to Manson that this was a reworked version of "Cease to Exist," especially given the title is directly taken from the song, but no credit was given to him. Initially, Manson tried to sue the Beach Boys, but when that failed his "family" made off with about $100 grand of Dennis' gold records and Mercedes Benz. The following August, the Manson family went on a rampage, leaving seven persons dead including Sharon Tate, Abigail Folger and the LaBiancas in two separate incidents.
Atkins and Kerwinkel were involved in both multiple murders. Van Houten was only involved in the killings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, replacing Kasabian who had previously lost her nerve. The Manson girls tried to make it look like something "witchy," with copious amounts of blood smeared across the walls, and "death to pigs" spelled out on one of the walls. This became the subject of a Nine Inch Nails song, "The Downward Spiral," showing once again how the murders captivated the public's morbid curiosity. However, it was no more than a drug-fueled killing orgy inspired by a frustrated songwriter.
So why do we keep giving Manson so much credit all these years later? And, why do we continue to make Kerwinkel and Van Houten, or for that matter Tex Watson, now an ordained minister, pay for his crimes? They were merely his foot soldiers, so high on hallucinogenic drugs they probably had no real idea what they were doing those nights. It's understandable Manson would be given a life sentence without parole, which he seemed to enjoy, but why his followers? Surely, Leslie Van Houten can finally be given a reprieve.