Van Houten went before a California parole board for the 17th time today, backed by supporters who said she no longer deserves to be behind bars.
The parole board denied the request.
Van Houten was one of five people, including Manson, sentenced to death for her participation in a drug-fueled murder spree ordered by Charles Manson in 1969 at the height of California's "Summer of Love." The sentences were later commuted to life in prison.
"Leslie, my God, is unbelievable," her father, Paul Van Houten, said. "I'll guarantee you there are people on the outside who haven't done as well."
Van Houten, 60, has been described by her supporters and prison staff as a model inmate. She is working as a college tutor while studying for her master's degree in humanities and has not had one prison infraction on her record in more than 40 years.
But Debra Tate, whose pregnant sister, Sharon Tate, was one of seven people slain by the so-called Manson family during two nights in August 1969, said she had collected 60 letters asking the parole board to keep Van Houten behind bars.
Tate, who has made a full-time job of advocating to keep Manson and his followers in prison, said she has no doubt that Van Houten has been a model prisoner, but pointed out that she thrived only in a tightly controlled environment.
"Is a tiger dangerous if it gets out of its cage? We proved that at the L.A. zoo," Tate said. "In the cage they are fine. You cannot let them out."
Tate said she still gets regular death threats from Manson supporters, at a rate of about three to four a year.
Since the parole board today denied what is called a "parole grant" for Van Houten, the Board of Parole now has 120 days to conduct a decision review. Once that is complete, her case will go to the governor for review.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger recently struck down a parole recommendation for another one-time Manson follower, Bruce Davis, who is serving life sentences for two murders unconnected to the Tate killings.
Van Houten's reputation as a prisoner dedicated to education and volunteerism is in stark contrast to the brutal savagery that made her and the rest of Manson's eager killers household names four decades ago.
In 1969, Van Houten had been upset that she was not picked to come along when Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel and Charles "Tex" Watson broke into Sharon Tate's posh Los Angeles-area home and butchered the eight-months pregnant actress along with four visitors at the house that night; celebrity hair stylist Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, writer Wojciech Frykowski and teenager Steven Parent, who had been visiting a friend on the property.
Van Houten, then 19, joined Watson and Krenwinkel the next night when they savagely killed supermarket owner Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary. Van Houten would later say Rosemary LaBianca was already dead when she stabbed her in the back more than a dozen times. Before leaving, she raided the couple's fridge for cheese and milk and changed into Rosemary LaBianca's clothes.
"They were brainwashed in a cult," Simon Fraser University professor Karlene Faith said.
Faith has been friends with Van Houten for years after getting to know her as a student at the prison in the 1970s and made Van Houten the subject of her 2001 book, "The Long Prison Journey of Leslie Van Houten: Life Beyond the Cult."
Faith wasn't at Tuesday's hearing but had written a letter of support on her behalf. She said Van Houten and Krenwinkel deserved parole but was skeptical that the parole board would ever agree to it.
"I think they're simply afraid politically to be the one to let her out," she said, calling Van Houten "inspiring."
Also in Van Houten's camp is noted Hollywood director John Waters, who devoted a portion of his recently released book, "Role Models," to Van Houten.
Waters, long fascinated by Manson murders, met Van Houten in the 1980s, while researching a piece for Rolling Stone magazine and struck up a friendship that has lasted for 15 years. They talk and write regularly and he sees her once or twice a year. He also had written to the parole board on her behalf.
Faith, who still keeps in regular contact with Van Houten through letters and phone calls, pointed out that her friend formally denounced Manson and her crimes back in 1974 and feels "very, very deep remorse."
"She will not ever be freed from that," Faith said. "That is her eternal punishment."
Paul Van Houten, 91, still writes to his daughter, once a pretty California homecoming princess, every week. Like Faith, he considers Van Houten's continued imprisonment to be a political issue.
"I think she's spent 15 years longer than she should have," he said. "There's nothing wrong with Leslie."
Debra Tate questions just how repentant Van Houten really is.
"The only time they show true emotion is when they are denied," she said. "In this case, she is still denying or minimizing her involvement. There is no minimizing the involvement."
Imprisoned with Krenwinkel in the California Institution for Women, Van Houten is one of the longest-serving female inmates in the state. She and Krenwinkel have been designated as "Golden Girls," members of a 200-plus group of aging inmates that get special consideration, such as getting a spot at the front of the line for food so they don't have to stand as long.
But Van Houten is in good health and is very active in the prison community, prison Lt. Felix Figueroa said.
She wakes for breakfast around 6 a.m. and is not due back in her double cell until 9 p.m., passing the time in between with educational programs, work assignments and recreation.
In her nearly four decades in state custody, prison officials said, Van Houten has worked as a teacher's aide, porter, clerk, culinary worker and a groundskeeper for the prison's Native American sweat lodge.
During their 1970 murder trial, Van Houten, Atkins and Krenwinkel made headlines for their utter devotion to the man they loved. Van Houten would later say she thought Manson was Jesus Christ.
They followed his lead in carving swastikas on their foreheads and shaving their heads in solidarity. And they shocked the courtoom with their outbursts and fits of giggling during testimony.
During the trial, Leslie Van Houten's trial attorney, Ronald Hughes, refused to go along with the group's plan for the women to take the fall for Manson, the mastermind behind the murders. He disappeared in 1970 and his badly decomposed body was found the next year. It was never determined how he died.
Van Houten was sentenced in 1970 on two counts of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder for her role in the LaBianca murders.
Hughes' death led to a mistrial in Van Houten's case and she was re-tried. The trial ended with a hung jury. A third and final trial in 1978 upheld the conviction and Van Houten, after being out for six months on bail, was sent back to prison for life.
Atkins, who slaughtered Tate as the actress begged for the life of her unborn child, died in September at 61, weeks after she appeared, weakened and feeble, at her final parole hearing to ask for the right to die at home. The request was denied.
Krenwinkel's next parole hearing is scheduled for January 2011.
Although the Manson clan is aging, they still try for parole regularly, keeping their victims' families on their toes. None of their victims' kin have been as active as Debra Tate. She has been designated as the unofficial coordinator for such efforts and this year, for the first time, she has been asked to be a spokeswoman for the LaBianca family.
Tate said there will be relatives of the LaBianca's at the hearing but that they have typically shied away from the media.
With Watson scheduled for a parole hearing later next year and Manson in 2012, Tate will have seen at least one Manson family member up for parole for four straight years. She also carefully watches the activity of other Manson family members that weren't involved in her sister's murder, such as Davis and convicted murderer Bobby Beausoleil.
"We also have to remember that they have personality factors that make them followers and not leaders and there are still currently all linked together and I see that as a huge problem," she said.
"We just can't give them the chance," she said. "They didn't give any of the victims the chance whatsoever."
But Tate knows that it's never a slam dunk to keep them in prison, pointing to the parole recommendation for Davis and last year's release of high-ranking Manson follower Lynette "Squeaky" Fromme, who was convicted of the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford.
"These are serial killers," Tate said. "These would be domestic terrorists if it was today. So these are very dangerous people."