The youngest of Charles Manson’s former followers is one step closer to freedom from prison, though release is not yet certain.
On Wednesday, Leslie Van Houten, 68, was found suitable for parole by a panel of board of parole hearing commissioners in Corona, California, PEOPLE confirms.
“In finding her suitable for parole, the panel determined that she does not pose an unreasonable risk to public safety if she is released,” California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation deputy press secretary Terry Thornton tells PEOPLE.
Van Houten was convicted, along with other members of the Manson “family,” of the brutal 1969 slayings of Los Angeles grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary.
Van Houten was not involved in the grisly killings of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and six others during a two-day spree in 1969.
Manson and his followers were convicted in 1971.
The two-member parole panel’s recommendation will now go to the Board of Parole hearings for review, which can take up to 120 days, before being sent to California Gov. Jerry Brown, and that could take up to 30 days.
Van Houten was granted parole last year but Brown rejected her release, saying at the time that she posed “an unreasonable danger to society if released from prison.”
“Once again, we are surprised and disappointed that the board feels that inmate Van Houten, who participated in the Manson murders, is safe to be released back into the community,” Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey said, in a statement obtained by PEOPLE. “We will appeal to the governor and await his decision.”
Meanwhile, Van Houten’s attorney says, “She is very thankful and very relieved.”
“I really like where we are sitting right now,” Rich Pfeiffer tells PEOPLE.
“I am going to get her out I just can’t tell you when,” he adds. “I have a feeling it is going to be in the very near future. If it wasn’t a Manson-related crime, there is no doubt she would have been out 20 years ago if not more.”
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Model Inmate or ‘Narcissist’?
According to Pfeiffer, Van Houten has been a model inmate during her decades behind bars.
“In the hearing there were multiple letters from inmates who had gotten out and said she took them under her wing and guided them to rehabilitation,” he says. “She has a master’s degree and her thesis is on sustained rehabilitation. They are using her thesis as a model for setting up rehabilitation programs in Europe. She is a special person.”
At Wednesday’s hearing, the panel asked Van Houten to explain Gov. Brown’s concerns about how a former homecoming princess could have become a killer.
“I’ve had a lot of therapy trying to answer that question myself,” she told the panel, according to the Associated Press. “To tell you the truth, the older I get the harder it is to deal with all of this, to know what I did, how it happened.”
Relatives of the La Biancas asked the panel to reject her parole bid.
“No member of the Manson family deserves parole, ever,” nephew Louis Smaldino said, according to AP. “She is a total narcissist and only thinks of herself and not the damage she has done.”
“Please see to it that this fight doesn’t have to happen every year for the rest of our lives,” said the La Biancas’ oldest grandson, Tony LaMontagne.
During the hearing, Van Houten also said that after her parents divorced when she was 14, after which she began hanging around a group of misfits and started doing marijuana and LSD.
She ran away with a boyfriend when she was 17, ended up in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury District during the so-called “summer of love” and got pregnant, the AP reports.
“Her mother forced her to have [an] abortion and they put the fetus in a coffee can and buried it in her backyard,” says Pfeiffer, her attorney.
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Van Houten said she later met Manson through an acquaintance at Spahn Ranch, a hippie compound outside of Los Angeles.
“Manson presented himself as Jesus Christ and there was a lot of LSD dosage,” Pfeiffer says.
Van Houten admitted she participated in the brutal slayings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca on Aug. 9, 1969. On that fateful night, she said she helped hold down Rosemary while Charles “Tex” Watson stabbed her. Watson then told her “do something,” and he passed her a knife and she stabbed Rosemary in the back around 14 times.
Van Houten, who was 19 at the time, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. She was granted a retrial in 1976 because her lawyer disappeared during her initial trial.
She was found guilty and began her sentence in 1978.
Van Houten is currently housed at the California Institution for Women.