Election Section

Former SLA fugitive wants to withdraw her guilty plea

By Linda Deutsch, The Associated Press
Friday November 16, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Saying she “cannot plead guilty when I am not,” 1970s radical Sara Jane Olson renounced her plea agreement stemming from charges of attempting to blow up police cars in a Symbionese Liberation Army conspiracy to murder officers. 

In court documents unsealed Wednesday, Olson asked to withdraw her plea in the 26-year-old case and stand trial. A hearing on the request was scheduled for Nov. 28. 

“After deeper reflection, I realize I cannot plead guilty when I am not,” the former fugitive said in her request, filed under seal the day before. 

Olson, 54, said she was taking the coward’s way out in pleading guilty to two counts in exchange for having three others dropped because she feared she couldn’t receive a fair trial after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

“I understand, given the uncertainty of any jury verdict in any trial that I may be found guilty,” she said. 

Legal experts disagreed Wednesday over whether Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler should honor the request. 

“If you admit your guilt and are advised of the consequences, it really doesn’t matter if you believe in your heart you are innocent,” said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson. 

University of Southern California professor Erwin Chemerinsky said the Olson case should go to trial. 

“Here’s someone who has protested her innocence,” he said. “It’s within the judge’s discretion and I think the judge should allow her to withdraw her plea.” 

For Olson, he said, “It may be a bad strategic choice, but if she says she’s innocent, let the system prove her guilt.” 

Olson is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 7 under law as it existed in 1976 when she was charged. She would face 20 years to life in prison, with possibility of parole in 5 1/4 years. If tried and convicted on all counts, she would face life with possibility of parole in seven years. 

The attempted bombings occurred in 1975, following a fiery shootout in 1974 that left six members of the radical SLA dead. Pipe bombs were placed under officers’ cars outside a police station and a Hollywood restaurant. Neither detonated. 

Olson, who then was named Kathleen Soliah, was indicted in 1976 on charges of conspiracy to commit murder, two counts of possessing destructive devices and two counts of attempting to explode destructive devices with intent to murder. 

Her request Tuesday is the latest in a series of bizarre twists the case has taken since Olson was found living as a fugitive in a quiet Minnesota suburb in 1999. 

She entered the guilty plea Oct. 31, but then immediately proclaimed her innocence outside court. When called before Fidler Nov. 6 and asked to explain herself, she reaffirmed the plea. 

“I want to make it clear, your honor, I did not make that bomb. I did not possess that bomb. I did not plant that bomb. But under the concept of aiding and abetting I do plead guilty,” she told Fidler. 

District attorney’s spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said prosecutors believe there are insufficient grounds for withdrawing the plea. 

“It’s a good plea,” Gibbons said. “She agreed to it three times — once in writing and twice in open court — after receiving extensive advice from a battery of lawyers and from Judge Fidler.”