Van Houten was born on August 23, 1949, in the Los Angeles suburb of Altadena. She grew up in a middle-class churchgoing family along with an older brother and two adopted siblings, a brother and a sister, who were Korean. Her mother and father divorced when she was 14. She began taking LSD, Benzedrine and hashish around age 15, running away for a time but returning to complete high school. At 17, she became pregnant and was forced by her mother to undergo an "induced miscarriage." Van Houten's mother informed her sometime later that the procedure could not be referred to as an abortion as the fetus was too far along. Van Houten stated that after this event, she felt very removed and harbored intense anger toward her mother. She had a period of interest in yoga and took a year-long secretarial course, but became a hippie, living at a commune.
Charles Manson had been a delinquent from an early age. In his late teens, Manson was released from an institution to live with relatives in a West Virginia town. There, he was generally regarded as a criminal braggart, though some law-abiding people found him very likeable and nice. Manson had a brief marriage to "a cute popular girl" before a stint as a pimp ended with a ten-year sentence. His IQ was slightly above average.
In prison, Manson became interested in Buddhism and alternative religions like Scientology, and he requested a transfer to Leavenworth (considered one of the harshest penitentiaries), because he said he would get fewer complaints about his guitar practicing there.
In 1967, Manson completed the sentence and, protesting to prison staff that prison was his home, was released at age 32. He aspired to success as a singer-songwriter. In Berkeley, Manson met and moved in with 23-year-old library assistant Mary Brunner.
Brunner introduced Manson to environmentalist thought, which he incorporated with material drawn from his prison studies to present himself as a guru, denouncing American consumerism. Manson preached the positive values of nature, sex, children, and how everything in life ought to be fun. He was successful in gathering a small group of young, largely female devotees, mainly from broken middle-class homes.
After a few months in a commune in Northern California, Van Houten met Catherine Share and Bobby Beausoleil and moved in with them and another woman during the summer of 1968. The four broke up after jealous arguments, and Share left to join Charles Manson's commune. Van Houten, then aged 19, followed Share. At this time, she phoned her mother to say she was dropping out and would not be making contact again. Manson's ideas in 1968 were similar to the cultural utopianism that circulated throughout the hippie subculture that Van Houten was immersed in. Manson's "Family", which maintained itself by freeloading and eating out of garbage bins, was presented as a form of environmentalism. They also went without washing facilities. Manson decided when they would eat, sleep, and have sex, and with whom they would have sex. He also controlled the taking of LSD, giving followers larger doses than he himself took. According to Manson, "When you take LSD enough times, you reach a state of nothing, of no thought". According to Van Houten, she became "saturated in acid" and could not grasp the existence of those living a non-psychedelic reality.
From August 1968, Manson and his followers were based at the Spahn Ranch. Manson ostensibly ran his Family based on hippie-style principles of acceptance and free love. At the remote ranch, where they were isolated from any other influences, Manson's was the only opinion heard. At every meal he would lecture repetitively. Van Houten said Manson's attitude was that she "belonged to Bobby." According to Van Houten, she and other Manson followers looked to 14-year-old Family member Dianne Lake as the "empty vessel," the epitome of what women were supposed to be in the Manson system of values. When Barbara Hoyt spoke at Van Houten's parole hearing in 2013, she said that Van Houten was considered a "leader" in The Manson Family.
Manson was preoccupied with becoming a pop star. From June 1967 to August 8, 1968, he had a number of recording sessions but was not thought promising enough for a contract. Manson, however, saw himself as a musical genius who would transform mainstream society. He identified with the subject of the Beatles song "Piggies", through a "world-shaking" pop album he would record. Influenced by the Bible, Manson taught the Family that they would be joined by the Beatles and escape to a bottomless pit, which they could enter through a "hole in the ground". They would emerge and be acknowledged as the rightful rulers after 150 years at the center of the Earth, where the Family would have grown in number to 144,000 and their bodies taken on new forms.
By April 1969, Manson had involved followers in criminal activity such as auto theft and residential burglaries, and Van Houten (who burglarized her father's home twice) had been arrested and spent a few days in jail. That same month, in a dispute over drugs, Manson confronted and shot a man named Bernard "Lotsapapa" Crowe. Although Crowe survived, Manson believed that he had killed him. He also, falsely, believed that Crowe, an African American, was a member of the Black Panther Party. This incident led Manson to become increasingly paranoid, and to imagine that Black Panthers were intent on exacting vengeance against him. Preparations for what he saw as a coming attack by the Black Panthers included Tex Watson demonstrating how to kill with a knife.
Manson, who denied responsibility, has never explained his motive for moving from being an aspiring pop star to orchestrating murder. At the trial, and in a bestselling book, the prosecutor suggested Manson was attempting to start a racial civil war. The racial nature of the motive for the murders Van Houten was convicted of was later adduced by a judge, increasing the gravity of her offense.
Gary Hinman, a musician with whom Manson was acquainted, was held captive and murdered on July 27, 1969. According to testimony by Mary Brunner at Bobby Beausoleil's trial, Beausoleil killed Hinman because he would not join Manson's rock band. Sources, including the LA Times, note that Susan Atkins played a role in Hinman's murder as well — holding a pillow over the musician's face while Beausoleil stabbed him to death. The words "Political piggy" were written on a wall in Hinman's blood. On August 6, 1969, Beausoleil was arrested in possession of Hinman's car and the bloody murder weapon.
On August 8, 1969, Brunner was arrested for credit card fraud. That evening Manson ordered the deaths of everyone living at the former residence of record producer Terry Melcher, who had raised and then disappointed Manson's hopes of breaking into the music industry. Sharon Tate, three of her friends, and a visitor to the caretaker, were all subsequently murdered at the house by a group of long-established followers personally selected by Manson. The group consisted of Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Tex Watson, whom Manson had placed in charge. Linda Kasabian, who had only joined Manson's commune the previous month, accompanied the group to the house but was ordered to remain outside. Kasabian was apparently included, in part at least, because she possessed a valid driver's license.
The next night, August 9, 1969, Manson again selected a group to commit murder. Van Houten was not chosen but asked to be allowed to go. Manson accompanied them. Van Houten, Tex Watson, Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, Steve Grogan, and Linda Kasabian went to a house in Los Feliz, the home of Rosemary and Leno LaBianca. Leno and Rosemary LaBianca's home was next to where a long-time close friend of Manson's original music industry contact Phil Kaufman had rented a house. Manson attended parties there with Kaufman when still friendly with him. Kaufman later maintained that this was no coincidence. Manson entered the house with Watson, then left with Atkins, Grogan and Kasabian. Manson sent the others to kill a Lebanese actor who had had sex with Kasabian, but she led Atkins and Grogan to the wrong address.
Krenwinkel and Van Houten found Rosemary LaBianca in a bedroom, to which she had retired while her husband had fallen asleep while reading in the living room. Watson put a pillowcase over Leno's and Rosemary LaBianca's heads, then tied the electrical cord from a lamp around their necks. Rosemary started struggling; meanwhile, her husband, who had been tied up in the living room, started screaming as Watson began stabbing him. Rosemary grabbed the lamp and swung it at Van Houten, who fought with her and knocked the lamp away. Van Houten then held LaBianca down while Krenwinkel tried to stab her in the chest, but the blade bent on LaBianca's clavicle. Van Houten called for assistance from Watson, who entered the bedroom and stabbed Rosemary LaBianca several times. He then found Van Houten, handed her the knife, and told her to "do something" (since Manson had instructed Watson to make sure everyone actively participated). Van Houten stabbed Rosemary's lower back and buttocks over a dozen times. Van Houten later told Dianne Lake that she had stabbed someone who was already dead. The autopsy indicated that some of the 47 stab wounds Rosemary suffered had been inflicted post-mortem.
Items taken from the house included a wallet with a credit card that was discarded on Manson's instructions; after talking about leaving it where a black person would pick it up and implicate him or herself in the murders of the LaBiancas by using the credit card, Manson actually had the wallet left in a woman's rest room.
On August 16, Van Houten was one of those booked after a raid on the Spahn Ranch by police investigating thefts. Manson suspected ranch hand Donald Shea and had him tortured and murdered. The Family partially moved to the Barker Ranch, where they drew attention to themselves by vandalism. Manson was arrested on October 12. By this time a motorcycle gang had informed on the Manson group for the Tate killings. Van Houten stayed with another woman in the desert, searching for the 'hole in the ground', before being arrested in December 1969. Unlike other members of the Family, Van Houten provided a great deal of information. Using the Manson family nicknames during interviews with police, Van Houten helped identify who had actively participated in the Tate and LaBianca murders, and who had been there but not killed anyone, thereby indicating that Kasabian was a crucial witness. Van Houten implicitly admitted to direct knowledge of the LaBianca murders in police interviews.
Tex Watson, who had shot or stabbed all of the victims at the Tate and LaBianca murders and who inflicted most of the fatal or non-survivable injuries, was not arraigned with the others at the main 'Manson' trial, which covered both the Tate and LaBianca murders. Manson was accused of orchestrating both attacks, but the only defendants at the trial whose murder charges were for actually inflicting injuries on the LaBiancas were Van Houten and Krenwinkel. Unlike the others, Van Houten was not accused of the murders of Tate and her friends.
Manson opposed his three female co-defendants running a defense that he had asked them to commit killings. Van Houten did not appear to take the court seriously (she later claimed to have been supplied with LSD during the trial) and giggled during testimony about the victims. Van Houten took the stand and admitted committing the murders with which she was charged, but denied that Manson had been involved. An often-cited example of how he seemed to exert control over Van Houten and the others was when Manson carved an X on his forehead and she and the other two women defendants copied him. In the latter stages of the trial they stopped mimicking him, Bugliosi suggested because they realised it was making the extent of his influence over them apparent.
Van Houten dismissed three defense lawyers in succession for claiming her actions were attributable to Manson's control over her. When her lawyer was asking an expert witness about the effect of LSD on judgment, Van Houten shouted that, "This is all such a big lie, I was influenced by the war in Vietnam and TV".
On March 29, 1971 she was convicted of murder with the other defendants. During the sentencing phase of the trial, in an apparent attempt to exonerate Manson, Van Houten testified that she had committed a killing in which she was not in fact involved. She told a psychiatrist of beating her adopted sister, leading him to characterize her as "a spoiled little princess" and a "psychologically loaded gun", and was adamant that Manson had no influence over her thought processes or behavior. Van Houten also told the psychiatrist that she would have gone to jail for manslaughter or assault with a deadly weapon without ever meeting Manson. When her lawyer, attempting to show she felt remorse, asked if she felt sorrow or shame for the death of Rosemary LaBianca, Van Houten replied "sorry is only a five-letter word" and "you can't undo something that is done". In cross-examination, Van Houten aggressively implicated herself in inflicting wounds while the victim was living, and severely wounding the victim which severed the spine and might have been fatal by itself. She vehemently denied acting on instructions from Manson, and said a court-appointed attorney who "had a lot of different ideas on how to get me off" had told her to claim Manson ordered the killings.
Van Houten was sentenced to be executed; she was the youngest woman ever condemned to death in California. No death row for female prisoners existed so a special unit was built. The death sentences were automatically commuted to life in prison after the California Supreme Court's People v. Anderson decision resulted in the invalidation of all death sentences imposed in California prior to 1972. With murder (or manslaughter) convictions she was eligible for parole once she had served seven years. For her to be released after seven years her first parole hearing would have had to have granted her parole and the Governor not veto the decision. In his bestselling book, prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi said that "his guess" was that all three women would be released after 15–20 years.
Van Houten was granted a retrial in 1977 due to the failure to declare a mistrial when her lawyer died. Her defense argued that Van Houten's capacity for rational thought had been diminished due to LSD use and Manson's influence. The jury could not agree on a verdict. According to what the jury foreman later told reporters, they thought it was difficult on the basis of the evidence to determine whether Van Houten's judgment had been unimpaired enough for a verdict of first degree murder rather than manslaughter.
It was reported in news media that because of time already served, Van Houten could go free that year if she was convicted of manslaughter. By law prosecutors are not allowed to mention the possibility of the defendant being released on parole when arguing for a murder rather than manslaughter conviction, because it is considered highly prejudicial to the defendant.
The prosecution in 1970-71 had emphasized that the motive had nothing to do with robbery, and the killers ignored valuable pieces of property. At Van Houten's second re-trial the prosecution, who were now being aided by a specialist in diminished responsibility, altered the charges by using the theft of food, clothing and a small sum of money taken from the house to add a charge of robbery, whereby the felony murder rule tended to undermine a defense of reduced capacity. She was on bond for six months before being found guilty of first degree murder. Van Houten was given a life sentence that entailed eligibility for parole, which the prosecutor said she would one day be suitable for.
Under California law, some life sentences are eligible for parole, and a parole board rejection of an application allows for a different decision in the future. Susan Atkins and Patricia Krenwinkel (who were originally convicted along with Van Houten and Manson at the main trial) had both been found guilty of the most notorious crime, the murder of five people, including the eight-and-a-half months pregnant Sharon Tate, at 10050 Cielo Drive. In addition, Krenwinkel was also convicted of the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, while Atkins was also convicted of murdering Hinman.
Manson's male followers have been relatively successful at parole hearings. Clem Grogan, convicted and given a death sentence by the jury for the torture-murder of Donald Shea with Manson, was freed in 1985. Bruce Davis, also an accomplice of Manson in the killing of Shea, and with a second murder conviction for the Hinman killing, was given a parole board recommendation for release in 2010 although very few inmates with even a single conviction on a charge of murder had been able to obtain parole in California before 2011. The exception is "Tex" Watson, who was denied parole for the 15th time on October 27, 2016.
After receiving her thirteenth rejection, in which the hearing concluded she posed "an unreasonable risk of danger to society", Van Houten took legal action. Judge Bob Krug ordered the board to re-hear the application because their reasoning turned solely on the unalterable gravity of her offense and effectively gave her life without parole, "a sentence unauthorized by law". The judgment was overturned by a higher court, which said although parole hearings must consider evidence for an inmate being rehabilitated, a hearing had discretion to deny parole based solely on a review of the circumstances of the crime, if "some evidence" supported their decision.
In 2013 Van Houten failed for the twentieth time at a hearing. In announcing a decision to deny parole, the commissioner of the hearing board said that she had failed to explain how someone of her good background and intelligence could have committed such "cruel and atrocious" murders.
On April 14, 2016, a two-person panel of the California Parole Board recommended granting Van Houten's parole request, but California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the release on the grounds that:
On September 29, 2016, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge William C. Ryan issued an 18-page ruling upholding the governor's reversal earlier in the year of a parole board's decision to release Van Houten. Ryan wrote that there was "some evidence" that Van Houten presents an unreasonable threat to society. On December 21, the California Supreme Court denied Van Houten's petition to hear the case.
Van Houten has long since renounced Manson and expressed remorse for her crimes. Indeed, at her 2013 parole hearing, her attorney argued that her value system was completely different from what it was in 1972. She has let it be known that she "takes offense to the fact that Manson doesn't own up" to his role in the murders. She told Vincent Bugliosi, the man who sent her to prison, "I take responsibility for my part, and part of my responsibility was helping to create him." She has written several short stories, once edited the prison newspaper, and did some secretarial work at the prison.
Van Houten was again recommended for parole at her 21st parole hearing on September 6, 2017. The two-member panel found that Van Houten had radically changed her life in the more than 40 years she has been incarcerated. However, the panel's decision must still be approved by the state parole board and Governor Jerry Brown, who reversed the panel's decision in 2016.
Van Houten's parole hearings have appeared on Court TV and attracted nationwide media attention. They have featured comments from former prosecutors, relatives of her victims, and relatives of the victims of other killers. Filmmaker John Waters has actively advocated for Van Houten's parole although he acknowledges that the horror in which Manson's female accomplices are still held means public support for her release may be futile.
Leslie Van Houten was portrayed by actress Cathey Paine in the 1976 made-for-TV film Helter Skelter. The 2009 film Leslie, My Name Is Evil (released in some countries under the titles Manson Girl and Manson, My Name Is Evil) is partially based on Van Houten's early life and stars actress Kristen Hager as Van Houten. In Helter Skelter (2004 remake of the 1976 film) Van Houten was portrayed by actress Catherine Wadkins. A year earlier, in 2003, Amy Yates portrayed Leslie Van Houten in the film The Manson Family. In the 2015 NBC fictional series Aquarius, which centers on the Los Angeles Police Department and the Manson murders, Emma Dumont portrays a character named "Emma" who is loosely based on Van Houton. Tania Raymonde portrayed Van Houten in Susanna Lo's 2016 film Manson Girls. Later in 2016, Greer Grammer portrayed Van Houten in Leslie Libman's film Manson's Lost Girls, which starred MacKenzie Mauzy as Kasabian.