On August 8, 1969, five people, including actress Sharon Tate, were murdered at a record producer’s house in Los Angeles. This was the second killing by Charles Manson’s “Family”; Manson wasn’t there but had ordered the killings. On the next night, with Manson in attendance, his gang murdered grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary. One of the participants was Leslie Van Houten, only a few months older than I. She reportedly stabbed Rosemary LaBianca simply because Manson had ordered everyone to participate in the killings. (An earlier revenge killing, ordered by Manson, was the murder of Gary Hinman by Family member Bobby Beausoleil on July 27, 1969).
After a long investigation, several members of the Family, including Van Houten, were arrested; their trial began in the summer of 1970. All four were convicted, including Manson, who, at age 81, is still imprisoned in California. He appears as demented as he was when arrested, and it’s clear that he’ll die in jail.
Van Houten went through three trials. The first guilty verdict (guilty with sentence of dath) was thrown out on a technicality, the second trial led to a hung jury, and the third to a final conviction. Two other women in the Family, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel, were also convicted and sentenced to death. All the death sentences, including Manson’s, were commuted to life imprisonment after California rescinded the death penalty in 1972. Van Houten’s final life sentence was levied allowing the possibility of parole.
Van Houten maintained at her first trial that her crimes were not committed when she was under the influence of Charles Manson, which was certainly untrue. She and the other Manson acolytes were rabid followers of the unstable but charismatic Manson. For instance, when he carved an “X” on his forehead in prison (supposedly to “X” himself out of society), three of the “Manson Girls” did likewise:
Van Houten also showed no remorse for her crimes during the trial, though that has apparently changed. She’s now been in prison for 45 years, which makes her, along with Patricia Krenwinkel, the female inmate who has been behind bars the longest in California. Atkins died in prison of brain cancer in 2009; the state refused to give her a compassionate release even though she was terminally ill.
By all accounts, Van Houten has turned around. She’s admitted remorse and takes full responsibility for what she did. So, apparently, has another “Manson Girl” who languishes in jail. In 2014, New York Times reporter Olivia Klaus did a video interview of Patricia Krenwinkel (see it by clicking the screenshot below), and said this:
Over the years, I had gotten to know this woman — and our many conversations about life, love and politics had revealed slivers of a dark past. But not until her on-camera interview, featured in this Op-Doc, did I fully comprehend her journey of self-discovery. In prison, she has struggled mightily to reconcile two parts of her life: the 21-year-old girl who committed crimes to win the approval of the man she loved; and the 66-year-old woman who lives each day haunted by the unending suffering she has caused.
Over the years, Van Houten was denied parole 19 times. As the Los Angeles Times reported, she went up for parole again in April, at age 65 (she was 20 when arrested). This time the parole board recommended release:
In recent years, Van Houten’s attorneys characterized her as a model inmate, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from prison while running self-help groups for incarcerated women.
At a 2002 parole board hearing, Van Houten said she was “deeply ashamed” of what she had done, adding: “I take very seriously not just the murders, but what made me make myself available to someone like Manson.”
According to comments carried by the Associated Press, she told the board Thursday: “I don’t let myself off the hook. I don’t find parts in any of this that makes me feel the slightest bit good about myself.”
Nevertheless, her appeal was turned down on Friday—by governor Jerry Brown, a liberal (or so I believed). The reasons, I think are bizarre. As NBC News reports (my emphasis),
The Democratic governor acknowledged her success in prison and her youth at the time of the murders, but he wrote in his decision that she failed to explain how she transformed from an upstanding teen to a killer.
“Both her role in these extraordinarily brutal crimes and her inability to explain her willing participation in such horrific violence cannot be overlooked and lead me to believe she remains an unacceptable risk to society if released,” Brown wrote.
. . . Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey and relatives of the victims last month turned in signatures of 140,000 people opposing Van Houten’s release.
“These people need to remain in jail until their passing day, for justice to be served,” said Debra Tate, Sharon Tate’s sister who delivered the signatures to Brown’s office last month and has organized opposition to the release of Manson family members.
I’m a determinist about human behavior, which I think is the only rational stance to take if you accept science. Like all of us, Van Houten was a product of her genes and her environment. That does not mean, of course, that she shouldn’t have been incarcerated for her crime. There are three reasons why even determinists favor incarceration: protection of society from an unreformed criminal, deterrence for others who see what will happen if they transgress, and reformation of the inmate so that they can be released. The U.S. prison system is notoriously bad at reformation, but so be it. (See below on a prison system that is much better.) But how long does it take for “justice” to be served? Van Houten has been in prison for over 45 years, and is a model inmate. She appears reformed, even to a parole board that is notoriously skeptical. Is there any more deterrence to be absorbed by keeping her in jail any longer? I doubt it. And she’s clearly no longer a danger to society.
In my view, Van Houten should be released to live out the rest of her life in society. There is no further reason to keep her in jail. What is most bizarre is Jerry Brown’s claim that she can’t be released because she has “an inability to explain her willing participation in such horrific violence.”
Think about that. She has to stay in prison until she concocts a convincing story of why she killed.
But any attempt to do that will produce just that—a story. The real reason why Van Houten killed is because her genes and her environment left her no alternative. She could not have done otherwise, and I think all of us admit it, even if we believe in some kind of free will that’s compatible with determinism. It’s madness to keep Van Houten locked up because, until she comes up with a good story, she’s still a risk to society. That’s a terrible reason. As the New York Times reported Van Houten appears to be confused, not understanding how she could do what she did, and I can understand that. All of us strive to confect narratives that explain our lives, but these are at best approximations to the truth, and all suffer from the notion that we could have chosen another life.
What’s important is whether Van Houten will engage in another killing spree if she’s freed. Does anybody believe that?
The only reason to keep her in prison now is the misguided view of retribution—that Van Houten did have a choice and deserves to be punished for making the wrong choice. This is what people think, and this is one of the horrible byproducts of believing in libertarian, you-could-have-done otherwise free will. As Alice LaBianca, Leno’s first wife, wrote in 1998 when Van Houten was coming up for parole:
“Leslie Van Houten chose her own path. She chose to follow the instructions of Charles Manson. She chose drug-crazed killers as her family and she became one of them. But what about my family? When do we get our parole? When does Leno get his parole?”
But Van Houten did not “choose,” her own path—not in any meaningful, punishment-worthy way. Maybe Alice LaBianca believes that, but she’s wrong. None of us “choose” our own path, and none of us could have lived a life different from the one we did. LaBianca combines that misguided view with a retributive motive as well: “When do we get our parole?” That is, Van Houten should die in prison because the relatives of her victims are still in pain.
This is the downside of the libertarian view of free will that most people hold. So long as people think that we could have made choices other than those we did, then so long will people languish in jail long after they’ve reformed, no longer pose a danger to society, and whose incarcerations no longer act as deterrents. The death penalty, which is also retributive, is not a deterrent, and serves to reform nobody (nor does it allow those later found innocent to be freed, is also a byproduct of a retributive vision.
This is why I rail against philosophers who, instead of pointing out the way we should reform our prison system in light of the determinism they accept, spend their time making up definitions of free will that comport with determinism. That effort is useless, a purely academic exercise—though sometimes conducted with the misguided excuse that unless we think we have some form of free will, society will disintegrate. (That’s what nonbelieving “faitheists” say about religion as well.)
It’s time to let Van Houten go, as well as Patricia Krenwinkel, who also is repentant and has been a model inmate. As for Manson, there is an airtight case for keeping him in jail, as he’s severely mentally ill and could not be trusted as a free man in society. He may well be incurably ill. But we should at least treat those like him humanely—something that, we know, is not really happening in American prisons.
Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, the Norwegian prison system, which is run on a model of reformation, deterrence, and protection of society—a deterministic model, in which nobody can initially be sentenced to more than 21 years—is much better than ours. As I wrote:
In Norway, fewer than 4,000 of the country’s 5 million people were behind bars as of August 2014.
That makes Norway’s incarceration rate just 75 per 100,000 people, compared to 707 people for every 100,000 people in the US.
On top of that, when criminals in Norway leave prison, they stay out. It has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%. The US has one of the highest: 76.6% of prisoners are re-arrested within five years.
(For more on this comparison, read “Incarceration within American and Nordic Prisons: Comparison of National and International Policies”, by Katie Ward et al.; it’s free online). Here’s a short video comparing the U.S. and Norwegian systems:
There’s little doubt that both Krenwinkel and Van Houten would have been released twenty years ago had they been in Norway. The U.S. prison system is odious—an embarrassment for a country supposedly civilized and enlightened. Our philosophers could lend a hand by writing about the effect of determinism on human behavior and how, in light of determinism, we should adjust our system of punishments and rewards. I implore them to help.
It is admittedly a hard task to overcome people’s notion of free will, and their view that we could always have chosen otherwise. But the payoff for so doing is great—much greater than writing arcane arguments about semantics for other philosophers. Van Houten languishes in jail largely because people don’t understand determinism.