If it seemed like déjà vu all over again the other day when the state’s parole board issued a decision that could free a leading disciple of perhaps the most vicious killer California has ever seen, that’s because it was.
The order marked the third time in the last five years that the Board of Parole Hearings has tried to release convicted Manson Family murderer Bruce Davis. The previous two attempts were reversed, first by ex-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and then by current Gov. Jerry Brown.
This being an election year, it’s almost inconceivable Brown would allow Davis to be released this time, either. Going along with the parole board now would open Brown to Republican charges of being soft on crime, something he’s never been.
It’s been more than 44 years since a cadre of young followers of the racist guru Charles Manson loosed a campaign of terror upon Southern California, their avowed purpose to get a race war raging across the state and nation. He called the scheme “helter skelter,” taking the term from a Beatles song.
Their most notorious slayings were those of actress Sharon Tate and four others at her home in leafy Benedict Canyon on the northern edge of Beverly Hills and the killings of wholesale grocer Leno LaBianca and his wife Rosemary in their home a few miles away one day later. Manson’s henchmen (and women) covered the walls of the LaBianca residence in the Los Feliz district of Los Angeles with racist slogans scrawled in their victims’ blood.
Davis didn’t go on either of those expeditions, remaining at the (now built over) Spahn Movie Ranch in the Chatsworth area of the suburban San Fernando Valley on those humid August nights.
But he did participate in the murders of movie stuntman Donald (Shorty) Shea, whose body was carved up and buried piecemeal around the ranch in the summer of 1969, and aspiring musician Gary Hinman, also cut to pieces with knives and a sword by Manson and friends.
It’s difficult for those not involved in investigating, prosecuting or covering the Manson Family crimes to comprehend their gruesome nature. Trial testimony by one former Manson minion revealed that Davis held a gun on Hinman while Manson slashed his face with a sword, trying to extort money from him. Shea was killed allegedly because Manson feared he was a police informant.
When Brown last year refused to allow Davis to be paroled, his six-page decision included this salient point: “In rare circumstances, a murder is so heinous that it provides evidence of current dangerousness by itself.”
In short, Brown, who at that point had signed off on 81 percent of the parole board’s recommendations for releasing murderers serving life sentences, remembered the crimes well.
To Brown and to most who still recall the Manson spree, the fact that Davis has claimed for more than 40 years he had little to do with Shea’s death, saying he inflicted only a “token” stab wound on the stuntman’s shoulder, matters little. The same for the fact he has been well-behaved in prison and has earned a Ph.D. while incarcerated.
All of which raises the question of what might happen when California gets a governor who not only doesn’t remember the Manson Family, but has little heard about it. If Brown is reelected this fall, that question will be delayed. But the leading candidates to succeed him in 2018 might include Democrats like Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, two years old at the time the Mansons ran amok, and state Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris, five at the time. Brown’s current Republican opponents, Assemblyman Tim Donnelly and former financier Neel Kashkari, were respectively three years old and not born until about four years afterward.
Might their lack of sentience at the time lead one of them to let Davis go? If so, that would be just plain wrong, for some crimes are just too horrible ever to be forgiven, no matter how old or intellectual the perpetrators may become.