SLA lawyer pleads innocent

The Associated Press
Friday May 18, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Lawyers for former SLA fugitive Sara Jane Olson went to court Thursday to defend themselves on criminal charges and later told a judge they may have to be removed from Olson’s trial. 

J. Tony Serra and Shawn Chapman said they have been forced into a situation where “there is a conflict of interest between us and our client.” 

Serra said he will file a motion asking to remove not only himself and Chapman but also the two prosecutors and the entire Los Angeles Superior Court bench from involvement in Olson’s attempted-murder case. 

“We are deeply aggrieved,” he said, referring to the latest developments as “a horrible mess.” 

The two lawyers, who were arraigned earlier on misdemeanor charges related to the release of witness information, said they were handed a list of potential prosecution witnesses in their case which included Olson, the two case prosecutors and a judge who formerly presided over the Olson case. 

Deputy District Attorney Michael Latin told Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler he would quickly answer Serra’s motion. 

“We welcome the opportunity to flesh out some of these issues early on,” he said. “This is a subject of very large proportions.” 

Fidler ordered the motion filed by May 29, the response by May 31 and set a hearing for June 4. 

Among the issues, Serra said, is whether he could be required to testify about confidential communications with his client. 

“There are so many issues there will be no recourse but to start all over again in the Sara Jane Olson case,” he said. “I think the whole Sara Jane Olson case could be put off another two years.... It’s my worst nightmare.” 

Serra earlier entered an innocent plea before a court commissioner to charges that he improperly released the addresses and phone numbers of police witnesses. 

Chapman did not enter a plea and said she expects the charges against her to be dismissed. 

Superior Court Commissioner Jeffrey M. Harkavy set a hearing for May 25 and said Serra would be granted a trial within 45 days unless he seeks a continuance. 

Serra said he wanted the matter resolved as quickly as possible. 

Outside court, Chapman said a previous judge in Olson’s case had determined she was not responsible for the release of information. She said the city attorney’s office, which charged her, was unaware of those proceedings and is now studying the transcripts to see if a dismissal  

is warranted. 

Both lawyers told reporters they believe the charges are an effort by prosecutors to cause a conflict of interest between them and Olson, who is awaiting trial on charges of attempting to murder police officers with pipe bombs. 

“This is not an attack on the lawyers,” said Serra. “It’s an attack on Sara Jane Olson. It’s their attempt to separate us from this case.” 

He and Chapman said the timing of the charges was suspicious, coming as the start of the trial neared. It has since been postponed. 

“They thought that we would be in jury selection and this would taint her with the public,” Serra said. 

City attorney’s spokesman Mike Qualls said he could not comment on Chapman’s claim that her charges were under review and he denied there was anything suspicious about the timing. 

“We don’t comment on the out-of-court comments of defendants in criminal cases, but as far as trying to taint jury selection, that’s ridiculous,” Qualls said. 

Chapman said that the defense team’s research has shown they are the only people to be prosecuted under a penal code section barring release of witness addresses and phone numbers by attorneys. 

The charges involve the posting of names and addresses of police witnesses James Bryant and John Hall on an Olson defense committee Web site. They have said they feared for their lives. 

Olson’s lawyers say the information was posted inadvertently by Olson supporters without knowledge of the legal team. It was removed following complaints. 

Olson, 54, is accused of putting pipe bombs under police cars in 1975 in retaliation for the deaths of six Symbionese Liberation Army members in a fiery shootout in 1974. The bombs did not explode. 

Indicted in 1976 under her former name, Kathleen Soliah, she was a fugitive until her 1999 capture in Minnesota, where she had taken on her new name and was living as a doctor’s wife, mother and active community member. She has said she is innocent and that she never belonged to the SLA.