Whenever the notorious killer Charles Manson or one of his convicted followers would come up for parole over the last 40 years, a Los Angeles County prosecutor joined victims’ family members at a California state prison to argue against the release.
But when Kay Martley joined a California Board of Parole Hearings video conference to consider parole for convicted Manson "family" killer Bruce Davis earlier this month, she was stunned to learn she would be making the case on behalf of her murdered relative alone.
“I had no one to speak for me," said Martley, 81, whose cousin Gary Hinman was tortured and killed by Manson followers on July 27, 1969. “I felt like no one cares about the victim’s families anymore. We are totally forgotten.”
The absence of a prosecutor was no oversight. It was the result of a policy shift ordered by newly elected Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón, who campaigned on promises to reduce the number of people in prison.
The new mandate puts a halt on Los Angeles County prosecutors opposing parole for inmates sentenced to life who have already served their mandatory minimum period of incarceration.
Gascón’s directive is part of a sudden shift in how his district attorney’s office, the largest in the nation, is considering victims’ rights before, during and after criminal trials.
The move is not likely to have a direct effect on Davis’ fate, experts say. Even though the state board recommended parole — the sixth time it has done so — California Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to deny the convicted murderer’s early release.
But the dynamic of a victim’s family member feeling abandoned by prosecutors represents an unintended — but thorny — consequence of the new push by some progressive-minded district attorneys to stop trying to influence parole decisions.
Gascón is among a handful of district attorneys in places like New Orleans and Brooklyn, New York, to rethink their stance on automatically opposing parole requests. The movement has gained momentum in the wake of the national reckoning over racial inequity in the criminal justice system spurred by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody last May.
The Davis case illustrates how victims’ family members can feel as if they’re left out in the cold.
"My jaw drops. I'm outraged," said Debra Tate, whose actress sister, Sharon Tate, was murdered by Manson followers.
Tate joined the parole board hearing for Davis earlier this month and said she, too, was shocked by the absence of a prosecutor.
"At the most horrible moment, when you have to relive the gruesome details of the loss of your loved ones, you are now also supposed to perform the job and act as the DA would,” she said.
Under the new policy, Los Angeles County prosecutors will no longer attend parole hearings and will support in writing the grant of parole for a person who has already served their mandatory minimum sentence, Gascón said in a memo to his staffers on Dec. 7, the day he was sworn in to office.
Gascón said should state prison officials determine that a person represents a “high” risk for recidivism, a prosecutor "may, in their letter, take a neutral position on the grant of parole."
Underlying the argument is the idea that state parole officials, not prosecutors, are best equipped to make judgements about whether or not to release inmates.
"The prosecutors’ role ends at sentencing," said Alex Bastian, special adviser to Gascón. "There's been a tug of war between public safety versus equity. The DA believes you can do both."
Asked to respond to specific questions about the Davis case, Bastian said the office is focused on providing “trauma-informed services” when a “heart-wrenching crime occurs.”
“In any case where an individual has spent nearly half a century in prison, the parole board has likely reviewed generations of behavioral health evaluations and has determined that a nearly 80-year-old elderly man is not the same person he was when he was 30 years of age,” he added. “The people’s interest in continued incarceration, at extraordinary cost to taxpayers, is likely to have informed their release decision.”
Bastian noted that the office will continue to provide a victims advocate to support family members. He acknowledged that no victims advocate attended the virtual hearing but said that was because family members opposed it. Martley disputed that characterization, saying she was never told about the possibility of one participating in the hearing.
Manson and his followers carried out a series of gruesome murders in Los Angeles in 1969.
Davis, now 78 years old, was sentenced to life in prison in 1972 for the killings of Hinman and Donald “Shorty” Shea.
Hinman, an aspiring musician, was tortured and killed after Manson mistakenly believed he had come into an inheritance. According to court testimony, Davis held Hinman at gunpoint while Manson slashed his face and sliced his ear with a sword.
Authorities called to the home on July 31, 1969, discovered Hinman's body and a Black Panther symbol and “political piggy” written on the walls of the home in what was later identified as Hinman's blood.
Shea, who worked at the ranch where Manson and some of his followers had lived, was stabbed and clubbed to death. He was then dismembered, and his remains were not discovered until 1977.
Davis was not involved in the more notorious killings of Tate and six others by Manson and his followers.
Steve Grogan, who was convicted in Shea's murder, was the only Manson follower convicted in the killings to be paroled from prison, in 1985. Manson, who died in 2017, was repeatedly denied parole.
Davis, who has had a total of 33 state parole hearings, has been found suitable for parole six times beginning in 2010. In each case, the sitting governor blocked his release from prison.
The parole board’s latest recommendation for his release, referred to in official documents as "parole suitability," will be finalized over the next few months. Corrections officials will conduct a legal review, then Newsom has one month to either reject the decision, take no action or make modifications to the decision by adding a parole condition or changing the date of release.
Newsom’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Davis’ attorney, Michael Beckman, said his client was the “most rehabilitated” of any of the roughly 2,000 inmates serving life sentences whom he has represented.
"He got seven years to life, and if he was anyone else rather than a Manson family member, he would have gotten out 30 years ago," Beckman said. "There is no question there is a visceral reaction [to the Manson murders]. But the law says you can only hold someone responsible for their participation in the crime. He cannot be held responsible for what Charles Manson did. Bruce didn’t kill anyone. He participated in two homicides. And he’s taken responsibility for all of it."
Retired Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Stephen Kay said he believes that Gascón, in trying to do the right thing, went too far by issuing a blanket policy.
He said prosecutors play an important role in the process by ensuring parole boards are presented with the facts of the underlying conviction, along with the impact of the crimes on the victims’ families.
"Basically, he has taken the people's lawyer out of the equation and left it in the hands of the defense," Kay said.
Kay said at the first parole hearing for Manson family participant Patricia Krenwinkel, the board had been presented with a two-page probation report that, he said, downplayed her role in the brutal murder of Tate, her unborn baby and four other victims: Wojciech Frykowski, Jay Sebring, Steven Parent and Abigail Folger.
Four of the victims had been stabbed a total of 102 times and the fifth had been shot to death. Kay recited the gruesome details of the murders.
"I think we owe it to society not to turn loose a member of the Manson family, such as Patricia Krenwinkel, who has participated in seven of the most vicious, brutal murders in the history of American crime," Kay told the board, according to a transcript. "I think it would be a great deterrent value to show the public that not everybody who commits murder can automatically get out on parole."
It was the first draft of an argument he would deliver some 60 times, from 1978 until 2005, when he retired and a new generation of prosecutors began to make appearances at parole hearings.
Martley, the cousin of victim Gary Hinman, has been attending parole board hearings since 2012. She said she was in a “state of shock” when she realized no member of the district attorney’s office was going to be participating in the Jan. 22 hearing.
"I don't think it's fair that the prisoner has legal representation at the hearing and I do not,” she said.
“It was a horrendous crime,” she added. “God willing, I will be healthy to be able to keep fighting these people."