Link to Background Story

Olson Gets Hard Time

After 24 years of a model suburban life,
Sara Jane Olson

Sara / Soliah
aka Kathleen Soliah, faced conspiracy charges for allegedly
planting bombs under police cars as a member of the Symbionese
Liberation Army, the group infamous for kidnapping Patty Hearst.

January 19, 2002 | At hearing in Los Angeles Superior Court on Friday, Sara Jane Olson was sentenced to two consecutive terms of 10 years to life for helping place bombs under police cars in 1975. She will serve a minimum of five years and three months, with the California parole board deciding if and when she would be released. She was also arraigned on murder and robbery charges in connection with a 1975 bank holdup near Sacramento, Calif. She pleaded innocent to those charges.

Former Symbionese Liberation Army radical Sara Jane Olson pleaded not guilty to a 1976 murder Friday just minutes after a Los Angeles judge sentenced her to 20 years in prison for attempting to bomb police cars the same year.

Olson and four other SLA associates were charged Wednesday with the killing of Myrna Opsahl, a bank customer shot during a robbery by the gang, best known for the kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst.

Her not guilty plea came at the end of a sentencing charged with emotion despite an outcome predetermined by a plea deal. A string of Olson's defenders, including her mother, husband and 15-year-old daughter, praised the 55-year-old as a devoted and socially aware suburban mom who bore little resemblance to the homegrown terrorist described by the prosecution.

Olson and daughter Leila Peterson

Olson, who maintains her innocence and tried unsuccessfully to withdraw from her plea deal and go to trial, apologized "if I did anything that brought harm to anyone," but she also defended her association with the SLA. She said that after her friend, SLA member Angela Atwood, was killed by police, "friends of her came and asked for help and I helped them."

Olson has acknowledged providing money and shelter to the group.

"I thought I was doing good and saving lives," she said.

Olson pleaded guilty on Halloween to an August 1975 bombing plot that targeted two squad cars. Officers discovered one bomb before it detonated. The other malfunctioned.

So Long, Soliah

Sara Jane Olson, AKA Kathleen Soliah,
Faces 20 Years to Life in Prison.

December, 2001 | LOS ANGELES — Sara Jane Olson has lost her bid to withdraw her guilty plea in a case relating to a Symbionese Liberation Army bomb plot. Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler refused Monday December 3rd to allow Olson to change the plea.

"She pled guilty because she is guilty," said the judge. "Everything I've heard since then has not convinced me otherwise."

Shawn Snider Chapman said attorney J. Tony Serra's "powers of persuasion" were overwhelming."He coerced her strongly to do it," she told the judge." 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."

Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler did not immediately rule on the request. "Are you telling this court that Mr. Serra is a sort of Svengali who overpowered this woman who can't think for herself?" the judge asked. "That's absurd. It's insulting."

Serra, the San Francisco attorney who has been directing Olson's defense, did not show up for the hearing. The judge called the lawyer's absence" absurd, unprofessional and inexcusable."

Olson, 54, was a fugitive for more than 20 years until her 1999 arrest on charges she tried to murder officers by planting bombs under police cars to avenge the deaths of six SLA members in a 1974 shootout. The bombs did not explode.

She had been living in Minnesota as the wife of a doctor and mother of three children. She had changed her name from Kathleen Soliah.

Olson pleaded guilty Oct. 31 and then promptly told reporters she was innocent and had entered her plea because the post-Sept. 11 climate had made it impossible to get a fair trial on terrorism charges.

The judge called her back on Nov. 6 to explain herself, and she reaffirmed the plea but asserted she was guilty only under the theory of aiding and abetting. She later asked to withdraw the plea.

"Without putting a gun to her head, he made her come in here and say the things she said," Chapman said.

Last week, Serra said in court documents that he was partially responsible for her mental state when she pleaded guilty and that she was in a "psychological condition of coercion."

The judge said Olson's attempt to withdraw her plea now would require that both she and Serra undergo cross-examination by prosecutors. "We don't accept guilty pleas from innocent people," Fidler said. "I took those pleas twice. I hate to put it (this way), but were you lying to me then or are you lying to me now?"

Prosecutor Eleanor Hunter argued that Chapman was employing "the girl defense, saying 'I was a girl and couldn' t stand up to a big strong man.' "

Judge Fidler, during a 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."

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

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," Judge Fidler said.

Sara in court 11/01


Sara Jane Olson, former SLA fugitive asks to withdraw her guilty plea

November, 2001 | LOS ANGELES (AP) — Former Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive Sara Jane Olson now wants to go to trial on charges of attempting to blow up Los Angeles police cars in the 1970s.

In documents unsealed Wednesday, she asked Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler to let her withdraw her October guilty plea to aiding and abetting a plot by the radical SLA group.

Immediately after pleading guilty, Olson told reporters outside court that she was innocent and only agreed to the plea bargain because the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made it unlikely she would get a fair trial.

Days later, Fidler called her into court and questioned her further, making sure she knew what her plea entailed.

"After deeper reflection, I realize I cannot plead guilty when I am not," Olson said in a written declaration signed Monday and filed under seal Tuesday.

"I understand, given the uncertainty of any jury verdict in any trial that I may be found guilty."

Olson, 54, was a fugitive for more than 20 years until her 1999 arrest on charges she tried to murder officers by planting bombs under police cars to avenge the deaths of six SLA members in a 1974 shootout. The bombs didn't explode.

She had been living in Minnesota as the wife of a doctor and mother of three children. She had changed her name from Kathleen Soliah.

Fidler called an unusual hearing last week in which he asked Olson to reaffirm her plea or withdraw it.

Olson then told the judge: "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."

"Because you are guilty of the crimes?" the judge asked her. "Yes,"

she said. In her motion, Olson said that cowardice prevented her from withdrawing her plea earlier. "I am not second-guessing my decision as much as I have found the courage to take what I know is the honest course," she said.

Olson attorney Shawn Snider Chapman argued in the motion that "the continued acceptance by the court of a guilty plea in the face of a defendant's suggestion that in fact he is not guilty runs contrary to all basic conceptions of justice under law."

Olson, who is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 7, could face 20 years to life if her guilty plea stands. Her lawyers had said, however, that they expected her to serve about five years.

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