Court finds no evidence to support governor’s reversal of Van Houten parole grant

In re Van Houten (Cal. Ct. App., May 30, 2023, No. B320098) 2023 WL 3712946, at *1

Summary: Van Houten petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus challenging Governor Gavin Newsom’s reversal of her 2020 grant of parole. Van Houten is serving concurrent sentences of seven years to life for the 1969 murders of Rosemary and Leno La Bianca, which she committed with other members of a cult led by Charles Manson. This is the fourth time a governor has reversed Van Houten’s parole.

The Governor found inadequate Van Houten’s explanation of how she fell under Manson’s influence and engaged in her life crimes. The Governor further found that recent statements Van Houten made were inconsistent with statements she made at the time of the killings, indicating “gaps in Ms. Van Houten’s insight or candor, or both.”  Van Houten’s most recent criminal risk assessment found her at low risk for violent recidivism, but the Governor found several “historical factors” identified in that assessment “remain salient” to Van Houten’s current dangerousness.

The court reviewed the Governor’s decision under the highly deferential “some evidence” standard, in which even a modicum of evidence is sufficient to uphold the reversal. The court found there is no evidence to support the Governor’s conclusions.

Van Houten provided extensive explanation as to the causative factors leading to her involvement with The Governor’s refusal to accept Van Houten’s explanation amounts to unsupported intuition. The Governor’s finding of inconsistencies between Van Houten’s statements now and at the time of the murders fails to account for the decades of therapy, self-help programming, and reflection Van Houten has undergone in the past 50 years. The historical factors identified in the criminal risk assessment are  immutable circumstances our Supreme Court has held cannot support a finding of current dangerousness when there is extensive evidence of rehabilitation and other strong indicators of parole suitability, all of which Van Houten has demonstrated.

The court granted  Van Houten’s petition.

Suitability for parole

“(A)life prisoner shall be found unsuitable for and denied parole if in the judgment of the [Board] the prisoner will pose an unreasonable risk of danger to society if released from prison.” (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15, § 2402, subd. (a).)“[T]he fundamental consideration in parole decisions is public safety,” which requires “an assessment of an inmate’s current dangerousness.” (In re Lawrence (2008) 44 Cal.4th 1181, 1205. (Lawrence).

Governor’s review
After the Board finds an inmate suitable for release on parole, the Governor may conduct an independent de novo review of the entire record to determine whether the inmate currently poses a threat to public safety. (Cal. Const., art. V, § 8, subd. (b); In re Shaputis (2011) 53 Cal.4th 192, 215, 220–221 (Shaputis).) “ ‘ “[T]he Governor’s decision must be based upon the same factors that restrict the Board in rendering its parole decision,” ’ ” but the Governor may be “ ‘ “more stringent or cautious” ’ ” than the Board in deciding whether the inmate poses an unreasonable risk to the public. (In re Prather (2010) 50 Cal.4th 238, 257, fn. 12.)

Judicial review the Governor’s decision under the “some evidence” standard

The “some evidence standard” is “extremely deferential.” (In re Rosenkrantz (2002) 29 Cal.4th 616, 665. (Rosenkrantz).) Under that standard, a simple modicum of evidence is all that is required to uphold the Governor’s decision. (Shaputis, supra, 53 Cal.4th at p. 210.)

The Governor’s stated reasons for reversal are not supported by the record

The Governor’s “decisions must be supported by some evidence, not merely by a hunch or intuition.” (Lawrence, supra, 44 Cal.4th at p. 1213.)

Lack of insight

In Ryner, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s overturning of the Governor’s parole reversal, finding that when “undisputed evidence shows that the inmate has acknowledged the material aspects of his or her conduct and offense, shown an understanding of its causes, and demonstrated remorse, the Governor’s mere refusal to accept such evidence is not itself a rational or sufficient basis upon which to conclude that the inmate lacks insight, let alone that he or she remains currently dangerous.” (Supra, 196 Cal.App.4th at p. 549.)

The Ryner court reasoned, “[W]e have to question whether anyone can ever fully comprehend the myriad circumstances, feelings, and current and historical forces that motivate conduct, let alone past misconduct. Additionally, we question whether anyone can ever adequately articulate the complexity and consequences of past misconduct and atone for it to the satisfaction of everyone. Indeed, the California Supreme Court has recognized that ‘expressions of insight and remorse will vary from prisoner to prisoner and … there is no special formula for a prisoner to articulate in order to communicate that he or she has gained insight into, and formed a commitment to ending, a previous pattern of violent behavior.’ ” The court continued, “[O]ne always remains vulnerable to a charge that he or she lacks sufficient insight into some aspect of past misconduct even after meaningful self-reflection and expressions of remorse.” (Ryner, at p. 548, 126.) “[A]lthough a ‘lack of insight’ may describe some failure to acknowledge and accept an undeniable fact about one’s conduct, it can also be shorthand for subjective perceptions based on intuition or undefined criteria that are impossible to refute.” (Ibid.)

As in Ryner, we hold that, on this record, the Governor’s dissatisfaction with Van Houten’s insight appears to be a “mere refusal to accept” her description of what led her to be a follower of the Manson cult. The  record provides no basis to support that refusal.

The court granted the petition for writ of habeas corpus. The Governor’s decision reversing the Board of Parole Hearings’ July 2020 decision finding Leslie Van Houten suitable for parole is vacated, the grant of parole is reinstated, and the Board of Parole Hearings is directed to conduct its usual proceedings for a release on parole.

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