Crime & Justice

UPDATE: Gov. Brown denies parole to ex-Manson follower, reversing parole board

70-year-old Bruce Davis has served in prison for over four decades, and Gov. Jerry Brown decides to keep it that way.
70-year-old Bruce Davis has served in prison for over four decades, and Gov. Jerry Brown decides to keep it that way.
California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation/AP

The enduring mystery of why young people joined Charles Manson's murderous family appeared to be at the heart of Gov. Jerry Brown's decision Friday to reverse a parole board's recommendation and keep Bruce Davis in prison.

Brown said he wants Davis, who has been behind bars for 42 years, to come clean about all the details of his involvement with Manson's cult and the two gruesome killings of a stuntman and a musician.

It was the second time in less than three years that a California governor has rejected a parole board ruling in Davis' case. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger refused his release in 2010, citing the heinous nature of Davis' crimes and his efforts to minimize his involvement.

Brown repeated those reasons in a six-page decision but added his belief that Davis still has more to disclose about the killings.

"Until Davis can acknowledge and explain why he actively championed the Family's interests and shed more light on the nature of his involvement, I am not prepared to release him," Brown said.

"After 42 years of incarceration, it is encouraging that Davis is beginning to reveal the actual details of what happened. But it is clear that he continues to withhold information about these events," Brown said.

"I think the governor is flat out wrong and I think the governor knows he's flat out wrong," Michael Beckman, Davis’ attorney, told KPCC. "Bruce Davis has taken full responsibility for his role in those two murders. He's said as clearly as possible and the governor just is playing politics with this man's life."

When asked how Brown would benefit from denying Davis’ parole, Beckman blamed pressures from victims' rights advocates and the L.A. District Attorney’s Office, which he said has been "engaged in a media campaign to get the governor to to reverse this grant."

The state parole board, citing the prisoner's positive progress, approved release of the 70-year-old Davis, but the Democratic governor had the last word.

Brown gave his decision to The Associated Press at the downtown Los Angeles County courthouse after a meeting with District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who had recommended that Davis not be paroled.

When asked if he had expected Lacey’s attitude towards the Manson case might be different than her predecessors, Beckman told KPCC that he had not. “I don’t think she even knows who Bruce Davis is,"Beckman said. "I think that she was just going on the recommendations made by the district attorney who’s handling all the Manson cases.”

Davis would have been only the second Manson-related murder defendant to be granted parole since the killing spree began in 1969.

Davis was not involved in the notorious Sharon Tate-LaBianca killings but was convicted with Manson and others in the murders of musician Gary Hinman and stuntman ranch hand Donald "Shorty" Shea.

Manson was a direct participant in both killings, according to witnesses. 

Steve Grogan, another participant in those murders, was released in 1985 after he led police to where the bodies were buried on a remote movie ranch in the San Fernando Valley.

Brown's decision outlined the killings in gruesome detail. It also quoted trial testimony of Barbara Hoyt, a former Manson Family member, who has become a constant attendee at parole hearing and an advocate for keeping all members of the cult in prison.

Many of the details she gave were proven wrong when the bodies were exhumed. She had spoken of dismembered bodies, but both men's bodies were intact.

Davis was 30 when he was sentenced to life in prison in 1972 in the case, which was a postscript to Manson's notorious reign as leader of the murderous communal cult.

Davis long maintained that he was a bystander in the killing of the two men. But in recent years, he has acknowledged his shared responsibility. He said his presence may have emboldened others to take action because he was an elder of the group.

Brown said Davis' refusal to fully acknowledge his responsibility for the killings was central to his decision. 

"I do not believe that Davis was just a reluctant follower who passively went along with the violence," he said. "Davis was older, more experienced, he knew what the Manson Family was capable of, and he knowingly and willingly took part in these crimes."

Davis became a born-again Christian in prison and ministered to other inmates, married a woman he met through the prison ministry, and has a grown daughter. The couple recently divorced.

Davis also earned a master's degree and a doctorate in philosophy of religion. 

When asked why society should welcome Davis back into society, Beckman pointed to the law. “I know that there are lots of people who don't think that any of the Manson family should go home," Beckman told KPCC. "I have absolutely no problem with that belief. The problem is that we have laws and the law doesn’t say that because  we don’t like somebody or think he did a bad crime he doesn’t go home. The law says that if the man is rehabilitated he has to be released."

“I have represented well over 700 'lifers' in the last seven, eight [years], and of them, he is the most rehabilitated I have ever run into,” Beckman said. “He would not pose a risk of danger to anybody.”

Manson and three of his followers, Leslie Van Houten, Patricia Krenwinkel and Charles "Tex" Watson, remain in prison for life in the Tate killings. Their co-defendant, Susan Atkins, died of cancer behind bars in 2009.