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Ex-Manson follower Leslie Van Houten released from prison after 53 years

After 53 years behind bars, Leslie Van Houten, who was given a life sentence for taking part in the horrific murders committed by the Charles Manson gang when she was 19 years old, was released from a California jail on Tuesday.

Leno LaBianca, a Los Angeles grocery store owner, and his wife Rosemary were murdered in 1969, and Van Houten, now 73, was found guilty of aiding Manson's followers in carrying out the murders.

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According to her lawyer, Nancy Tetreault, she was freed from prison early in the morning and is now residing in a transitional housing facility. She will be monitored during her parole.

She had been deemed "suitable" for release and not a risk to society on five separate times, the first being in 2016, but each time the governor's office overruled the judgment and demanded she remain in prison. A state appeals court ruled with Van Houten in May after her attorneys contested the vetoes and determined that she should be released. She worked as a tutor, obtained a master's degree in humanities, and participated in a variety of mental health and self-help programs, among other accomplishments the court noted.

Aside from one written warning for "verbally communicating with women" in 1981, Van Houten had no other disciplinary actions for the course of his more than fifty years in jail, according to the LA Times.

"She's really thrilled, but she's been in prison for 53 years and turns 74 next month so this is a huge change," Tetreault said to the Guardian on Tuesday in the late afternoon. She is happy that others are realizing how utterly changed she has become because she has. She has been the most committed client I've ever had to change. She received counseling for 40 years and participated in so-called rehabilitative programming for 30 years.

She took involved in these horrific crimes while under the influence of Charles Manson. and she put a lot of effort into understanding it, moving past the cult indoctrination, and accepting responsibility. She also had to face her crippling shame over what she did. She has a great deal of regret," Tetreault continued. "I think she's just relieved that her crimes don't define her anymore,"

Governor Gavin Newsom, who has vehemently opposed her release, expressed disappointment last week that the courts decided in her favor but said he would not appeal the most recent ruling since he would probably fail.

"More than 50 years after the Manson cult committed these brutal offenses, the victims' families still feel the impact, as do all Californians," a representative for Newsom told the Guardian last week.

Manson passed away in prison in 2017 at the age of 83, over 50 years after his arrest. The first parole was awarded to Patricia Krenwinkel, a former Manson follower who was found guilty of murder, last year, but Newsom prevented her release. In 2009, Susan Atkins, who had been found guilty of eight murders, passed away in custody.

Tetreault stated that since 2016, authorities had repeatedly acknowledged Van Houten's improvement and accomplishments: "The board was extremely devoted to her release and they indicated that they were proud of her. She had appeared before the parole board 21 times before they considered her acceptable to return home. She was able to change because she committed herself to rehabilitative programming. The parole board and I both agree that she inspires hope in young individuals serving time for heinous crimes by showing them that they can change, be granted parole, and have a chance at a respectable life.

The lawyer continued, "She doesn't know how to use a computer or a cellphone or how to buy things without cash money or negotiate a supermarket." Van Houten will have a difficult time transitioning to life outside of prison.

Cory LaBianca, Leno's now 75-year-old daughter, expressed last week that she was "heartbroken" about Van Houten's impending release. According to the AP, "My children and my grandchildren never got the opportunity to get to know either of them, which has been a huge void for my family."

Van Houten's case, according to advocates for criminal justice reform who pushed for her release, revealed weaknesses in the state's parole system that allow elderly prisoners to be refused release even after a state board finds they have been rehabilitated and represent no threat. Governors frequently veto the granting of parole in high-profile and politically charged instances.

With an aging prison population serving lengthy or indeterminate terms and few options to return home, California, like other states around the nation, is experiencing what civil rights advocates claim has turned into a humanitarian crisis.

People should be aware, Tetreault added, "that these lengthy sentences are more about retribution than they are about rehabilitation."

This article was contributed to by The Associated Press.

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