She was the youngest Charles Manson follower convicted in the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders — a girl of 19 who seemed the one most likely to win parole one day
But 44 years after she went to prison, Leslie Van Houten has gray hair and wrinkles and is facing her 20th parole hearing Wednesday with multiple forces arrayed against her bid for a chance at freedom.
A prosecutor plans to oppose her release as he has before, citing the heinous nature of the murders that shocked the world in the summer of 1969 and continue to occupy a unique place in the annals of American crime. Survivors of victims planned to travel to the California Institution for Women to speak out against letting Van Houten go free.
Unlike a previous hearing where Van Houten said little, her attorney, Michael Satris, said she plans to speak to the parole board on her own behalf this time, explaining that she has become a different person dedicated to doing good works.
"She is living a life of amends for her crime on a daily basis," Satris said. "Everything she does now is to be of service and benefit to the world."
He said Van Houten's value system is the complete opposite of 1969 when "she was following the teachings of a false prophet."
Satris said that Van Houten wants to be released but her actions in prison are not designed for that alone.
"She just wants to be as good of a person as she can be," he said. "And it would be a matter of grace if the parole board would bestow on her the chance to accomplish this on the outside."
Van Houten has been commended before for her work helping elderly women inmates at the California Institution for Women where she and other Manson women have been incarcerated. She earned two college degrees while in custody.
If paroled, she would be reversing a trend. Other members of Manson's murderous "family" have lost bids for parole.
One former Manson follower, Bruce Davis, actually was approved for parole last year only to have Gov. Jerry Brown veto the plan in March, saying he wanted the 70-year-old Davis to reveal more details about the killings of a stunt man and a musician. Davis was not involved in the slayings of actress Sharon Tate and six others.
The Tate-La Bianca killings became among the most notorious murders of the 20th century and continue to rivet public attention.
Van Houten was convicted of murder and conspiracy for her role in the slayings of wealthy grocers Leno and Rosemary La Bianca. They were stabbed to death in August 1969, one night after Manson's followers killed actress Sharon Tate and four others — celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, filmmaker Voityck Frykowksi and Steven Parent, a friend of the Tate estate's caretaker.
Van Houten did not participate in the Tate killings but went along the next night when the La Biancas were slain in their home. During the penalty phase of her trial she confessed to joining in stabbing Mrs. La Bianca after she was dead.
She was portrayed by her defense lawyers as the youngest and least culpable of those convicted with Manson, a young woman from a good family who had been a homecoming princess and showed promise until she became involved with drugs and was recruited into Manson's murderous cult.
She was convicted along with Manson, Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkle. Van Houten was sentenced to death along with them but their sentences were reduced to life in prison with the possibility of parole when the death penalty was briefly outlawed in the 1970s.
Atkins died of cancer in prison. Krenwinkle has been denied parole repeatedly and Manson, now 78, has stopped coming to parole hearings, sending word that prison is his home and he wants to stay there.
Manson's onetime lieutenant, Charles "Tex" Watson, was convicted separately and has been denied parole many times.
Decades ago, one of the original prosecutors in the case, Stephen Kay, said there would come a time when Van Houten would be ready for parole.
But parole officials, while giving her high marks for her accomplishments in prison, have refused her bids for freedom 19 times. Her last hearing was in 2010 at which she said, "I apologize for the pain I caused."
Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Patrick Sequeira focused then on the details of the deadly summer of 1969 when Manson and his followers set out to foment a race war with a senseless killing spree. He declined to comment in advance on his planned argument Wednesday against her release.