Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to veto the parole granted to Leslie Van Houten of the Manson “family” in 2020 was reversed by California’s 2nd District Court of Appeal this past May, exposing flaws within California’s parole process, according to the Los Angeles Times. In 1969, Van Houten was involved in the murders of Rosemary and Leno LeBianca. She was 19-years-old at the time.
“Her explanation of what allowed her to be vulnerable to Mr. Manson’s influence remains unsatisfying,” Newsom wrote regarding his 2020 veto, which came after Van Houten’s prison was experiencing a Covid-19 outbreak.
The appeals court recognized that Van Houten’s admirable record while incarcerated demonstrates “speculation” on the part of the governor, and that state law requires that the governor’s decision to veto parole “be supported by some evidence, not merely by a hunch or intuition.”
California is one of two states that allows the governor to veto parole recommendations, which risks giving power to political agendas.
The veto process was introduced by legislators in 1988 and only allows the governor to veto parole recommendations, not denials. The California Department of Corrections only recommended parole in 20% of cases in 2019, reported the Times.
A 2008 decision by the California Supreme Court states that parole boards cannot deny a person parole based only on the seriousness of their crime and instead must show that a candidate poses a risk to public safety to be denied parole. This requirement is often sidestepped by boards and governors, who use vague or unclear language in their decision-making, keeping the process opaque.
The Times reported that Newsom agreed to release just 8,000 people during the pandemic, even though many people serving life sentences faced serious health risks and death due to Covid-19 and posed little-to-no risk to public safety.
“No matter the outcome, [Van Houten’s] journey raises serious questions about the gubernatorial veto. Do we truly need an extra layer of political considerations to assess danger to the public — or should we trust the professionals appointed by the governor, mostly from law enforcement backgrounds, to do their job?” the Times asked.
In an op-ed for the San Diego Union-Tribune, California Innocence Project staff attorney Claudia I. Salinas wrote about the problems faced by innocent people seeking parole. She noted that innocent parole candidates must either argue their claim of innocence or admit responsibility, meaning they either have to perform a “mini trial” requiring additional evidence in favor of the candidate or falsely admit to a crime to perform remorse.
“I hope for more favorable case law to emerge to help him and many like him navigate the contradictions in the parole suitability process,” Salinas wrote of one of her innocent clients navigating parole. “Otherwise, innocent individuals remain in this burdensome dilemma of accepting responsibility for something they have not done in efforts to simply regain their freedom.”