Judge won’t withdraw guilty plea in SLA case

By Linda Deutsch The Associated Press
Tuesday December 04, 2001

LOS ANGELES — A judge refused Monday to allow Sara Jane Olson to withdraw her guilty plea in a Symbionese Liberation Army bomb plot. 

“She pled guilty because she is guilty,” said Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler. “Everything I’ve heard since then has not convinced me otherwise.” 

The judge, during hearing on the withdrawal motion, also denounced the defense team for using the national attacks of Sept. 11 as a reason to say they could not get a fair trial. 

“It’s fine to be concerned that an act which absolutely rocked this country might affect this trial,” Fidler said. But he said that without questioning prospective jurors about it, there was no proof that such a connection exists. 

“This constant trying to link this trial to Sept. 11 is abhorrent,” he said. “It is unfair to those who died Sept. 11 and it’s unfair to the prospective jury. ... It’s ridiculous. It’s just another allegation to try to keep this case from going to trial.” 

Fidler was speaking of an effort by the defense before the plea to delay the trial for several months in light of the Sept. 11 attacks. 

Olson was ordered to return to court Jan. 18 to surrender for sentencing. 

The judge ruled after the prosecution presented an overview of the case against Olson, illustrated with a computer presentation of photographs and chronologies prosecutors said linked her to the bomb plot. It was a virtual history of the SLA in California and showed that the case would have rested heavily on the testimony of star witness Patty Hearst. 

Defense attorney Shawn Snider Chapman responded that Hearst was a convicted felon and proven liar whose testimony could have been easily challenged on cross-examination. She said that other former SLA members including Bill Harris and Wendy Yoshimura stood ready to testify that Olson played no role in any bomb plot to kill policemen in 1975. 

Before he ruled that the plea must stand, Fidler gave Olson a chance to take the stand and be cross-examined about her role in the case. She refused. 

“It speaks volumes that Ms. Olson will not submit to cross-examination,” the judge said. He said that he could not accept a guilty plea from an innocent person and be able to sleep. 

“I intend to sleep very well,” he said. 

The hearing began after Olson’s lead attorney J. Tony Serra failed to show up. 

Fidler called Serra’s absence “absurd, unprofessional and inexcusable” and demanded that Chapman explain Olson’s arguments for withdrawing her plea. 

Chapman then accused Serra of browbeating Olson into a plea she did not want. 

“His powers of persuasion are overwhelming,” she said. “He coerced her strongly to do it.” 

Chapman said Serra cursed at Olson during private talks before she pleaded guilty to two of five counts in a plea bargain to resolve a 1976 indictment. 

“Mr. Serra screamed and yelled at her and told her — I apologize for the language — she would be a (expletive) idiot if she didn’t take the deal,” Chapman told the judge. 

Olson, now a 54-year-old Minnesota housewife, pleaded guilty Oct. 31 and then told reporters she was innocent. The judge called her back on Nov. 6 to explain herself and she reaffirmed the plea but asserted she was guilty under the theory of aiding and abetting. She later asked to withdraw the plea. 

Chapman also accused prosecutors of misrepresenting their position on punishment. She said the defense was led to believe Olson would serve no more than 3 1-3 years if she pleaded guilty. But by the time of the plea, she said, prosecutors were taking the position that Olson’s fate was in the hands of a parole board and she could get up to life. 

Deputy District Attorney Eleanor Hunter objected. 

“We’re not dealing with a child here,” Hunter said. “We’re dealing with a woman in her 50s with a lifetime of experience. She’s not going to be browbeaten by a man.” 

Hunter argued that Chapman was employing “the girl defense,” saying “I was a girl and couldn’t stand up to a big strong man.”