It's been nearly 40 years since the Manson murders, and although Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten have received multiple parole hearings, none of them have been released. There have been a few close calls, but no matter how much these women claim rehabilitation, the heinous nature of their crimes are a major stumbling block to parole. During the original trial, they actively sought fame and created controversy. Now, it comes back to haunt them. One rationalization used by the California parole board for denial is that all three were originally sentenced to death, and the fact they were allowed to live out their lives separate from the rest of society is mercy enough. All three had their sentences commuted to life in 1972 by the Supreme Court, when the death penalty was temporarily declared unconstitutional. This made them technically eligible for parole in seven years.
After spending nearly four decades in the can, it's unlikely these ladies would just pick up a knife and start writing letters to Charlie a day after their release. Problem is, no one wants to bell the cat by signing their exit papers. At every parole hearing, both the prosecutor and representatives from the victims' families show up, and every time the Manson girls are denied parole. Unless prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi dies, or the victims run out of relatives to send to the hearings, it's unlikely they will ever be released.
The chances of all three getting out of prison are nil. So I decided to research them and select ONE I thought would be the safest bet for parole.
Candidate Number One: Susan Atkins
Atkins is currently married to her lawyer, James Whitehouse. He continues to file Habeas Corpus appeals on her behalf, claiming unequal treatment under the guidelines of normal 'life sentencing' as it applies in California law. In other words, he claims Atkins is continually denied parole unfairly. He runs a website dedicated to Susan, but it really looks bad on the homepage when he misspells the names of the victims. He spells Tate-LaBianca as 'Tate-labiance'. Like the other Manson girls, Atkins has been a model prisoner, earned a couple of degrees, and participates in every program available. However, being possibly the most enthusiastic member of the killing spree besides 'Tex' Watson has hurt her chances of ever seeing the outside of a prison cell. She is praised by prison staff for her model behavior. You never know, though. Maybe they just want her to be somewhere else besides the place they work. It's hard to tell. (Update: Susan Atkins died of brain cancer while still incarcerated, on September 24, 2009.)
Candidate Number Two: Patricia Krenwinkel
Krenwinkel turns 60 this year. Basically, she's a tortured soul who knows full well she did a horrible thing by stabbing Abigail Folger more than 70 times. When the cops found Folger's body, they thought she was wearing a RED dress. Krenwinkel skipped her 1997 parole hearing. She has come to realize her chances for release are slim. She continues to be a model prisoner, but the sheer horror of her actions, and the fact that she participated in both the Tate and Labianca murders makes parole unlikely.
Candidate Number Three: Leslie Van Houten
Among the Manson girls, Van Houten probably has the least culpability in the murders. She was an honor student and a homecoming queen before she met Manson and 'Tex' Watson. She was actually released on bail for six months in 1977 after her original conviction was overturned. Van Houten worked as a legal secretary during this time and attended court every day. A new jury found her guilty and she was returned to prison. Van Houten was not at the Tate killings, but she stabbed Rosemary LaBianca 16 times in the lower back, after Watson told her to do it. Van Houten has always maintained that LaBianca was already dead, since Watson stabbed LaBianca numerous times first. The evidence supports her claim. But this doesn't mean she should go free. She could have refused to leave the car, as Linda Kasabian did when the killers arrived at the LaBianca home. Diane Sawyer has interviewed Van Houten and questioned her moral compass for this choice. (Update - May 2015: Van Houten is being considered for parole by California governor Jerry Brown, after the Parole Board recommended her release. Brown has received thousands of messages urging him to deny her release, and a petition against her release already contains 130,000 out of a required 150,000 signatures.)
This is one of the toughest calls I've ever had to make, but if someone put a gun to my head and ordered me to pick one of the Manson girls for parole - it would have to be Van Houten. She was the youngest, and probably least able to say 'no' to Manson or 'Tex' Watson. It doesn't mean what she did was right. It just means we might be able to trust her enough to walk among the living again - someday.
On the other hand, I might tell the guy to go ahead and pull the trigger on me and keep all three in jail.
As Kurt Russell said in the film, 'The Thing': 'Trust is a hard thing to come by these days...'
About the writer of this article: Robert Blevins is the managing editor for Adventure Books of Seattle and the author of the sci-fi novels Say Goodbye To The Sun, The 13th Day of Christmas, and The Corona Incident.