Hearing held to verify SLA radical’s guilty plea

By Linda Deutsch The Associated Press
Friday November 02, 2001

LOS ANGELES — A hearing was ordered Thursday to determine whether the guilty plea by a former Symbionese Liberation Army radical for a 1975 attempted bombing was valid, given her public declarations of innocence. 

The order from Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler came one day after Sara Jane Olson entered the plea. She then walked outside the courtroom and insisted she had done so because the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had made it impossible to get a fair trial. 

“I pleaded to something of which I’m not guilty,” she said. 

Fidler set the hearing for Tuesday. A court spokesman said he didn’t know whether the hearing would be private or held in open court. 

“I’ve never been in a situation like this before,” said Michael Latin, one of the prosecutors. “I’ve been in situations where a defendant comes back and asks to withdraw a plea, but that is not what’s happening here.” 

He said the prosecution had not asked for the hearing. 

Olson, 54, made no reference to the attacks as she admitted to possessing bombs and attempting to explode them under police cars in two incidents — one at the Hollenbeck Police Station in Los Angeles and another near a House of Pancakes restaurant in Hollywood on Aug. 21, 1975. 

Neither bomb went off. Prosecutors said one of them was one of the largest pipe bombs ever built in the United States and would have injured many people. 

Prosecutors dismissed three other charges in exchange for Olson’s plea, but did not guarantee her a specific sentence. Her lawyers said they expected her to get about five years in prison, but she could be sentenced to life behind bars Dec. 7. 

After the hearing, Olson said the esteem of law enforcement authorities has risen since the attacks and she had to consider the possibility of being convicted. She said her lawyers advised her that her chances of a lesser sentence would be better if she pleaded guilty. 

Defense lawyer Shawn Snider Chapman said Olson had been so ambivalent about pleading guilty that she did not make the final decision until just a few minutes before the hearing. 

The trial was to have provided an ending to the SLA’s violent history and perhaps a finale to a story which once riveted America. The SLA had gained national notoriety after the 1974 kidnapping of media heiress Patty Hearst. 

Olson, whose given name was Kathleen Soliah, was accused of targeting police officers in retaliation for the deaths of six SLA members in a 1974 shootout and fire at a Los Angeles house. 

She vanished a short time after the attempted bombings. She was indicted in 1976 but remained a fugitive until her June 1999 capture in St. Paul, Minn., where she was living under the assumed name she later adopted. She had built a life as a wife, mother of three children and sometime actress. 

Even before Fidler’s move, legal experts said Olson’s actions were surprising. 

“I don’t think it’s a very smart thing to do,” said Loyola University Law professor Laurie Levenson. 

“At minimum, she will get a tongue lashing,” Levenson said. “But the court is going to say, ’Ms. Olson, if you are innocent, let us do what we do best and give you a trial.”’