Judge Refuses to Permit Ex-Radical to Reverse Plea

New York Times/December 4, 2001
By James Sterngold

Los Angeles -- In angry and at times sarcastic terms, a California judge today rejected Sara Jane Olson's efforts to withdraw her guilty plea to charges that she participated in a plot to bomb two police cars here 26 years ago as a member of a self-styled revolutionary group, the Symbionese Liberation Army.

Ms. Olson, who had fought this day of reckoning for decades, first as a fugitive for 24 years, then through numerous delays in her trial, is to be sentenced on Jan. 18.

She is expected to receive at least 10 years in prison for the two felony counts, but could get as much as life.

Even for a case that has had an extraordinary number of twists and turns, the daylong hearing was an astounding legal and emotional event that left the usually effervescent Ms. Olson looking defeated and spent.

She has pleaded guilty to the charges twice, then twice protested her innocence outside court.

Her lead lawyer did not show up for the hearing today, later saying in a fax to the judge that he had missed a flight from San Francisco this morning because of "bad karma," which sent him back to bed.

The prosecutors offered a sort of mini-trial, reviewing their detailed, incriminating but circumstantial case against Ms. Olson.

The lone defense lawyer present, Shawn Chapman, at various times called both the prosecutors and Ms. Olson's lead lawyer, J. Tony Serra, liars and charged that Mr. Serra had browbeat Ms. Olson into entering and re-entering her earlier guilty pleas.

Ms. Chapman countered some of the prosecution's evidence and arguments, but she also conceded that Ms. Olson, then known as Kathleen Soliah, had broken the law by aiding the Symbionese Liberation Army, even if she had played no role in the failed bombing plot.

The tension that built in the courtroom seemed to show on Ms. Olson when, in a dramatic moment, she lashed out at a prosecutor and corrected the way she was pronouncing Ms. Olson's maiden name, Soliah. The outburst prompted the judge to threaten to jail her if she protested again.

For all these unusual developments, the judge, Larry Paul Fidler of Superior Court, was clear and forceful in his decision at the end of the day.

Judge Fidler excoriated Ms. Olson's lawyers, contending they had used ploys to drag out the case, and he called Ms. Olson's effort to withdraw a guilty plea that she had entered twice "absurd."

"I often wonder if the defense thinks I drive a car to work or a turnip truck," he said, in one of several moments of sarcasm.

Judge Fidler even offered his own psychological explanation for why Ms. Olson had changed her mind so often and had resorted to what he characterized as far-fetched arguments and offensive tactics.

He said he had no doubt she was guilty of the crime, and added, "I believe she has a tremendously difficult time admitting to what she did," not just to herself, but also to her family and her many supporters in her adopted home, St. Paul.

Judge Fidler said he would find it hard to sleep if he thought he was denying an innocent person the right to a fair trial.

"I intend to sleep very well tonight," he said.

Ms. Olson was accused of having plotted to place large pipe bombs under two police cars in retaliation for a shootout in 1974 that killed six members of the Symbionese Liberation Army, including a close friend. The bombs failed to explode.

Ms. Chapman said that Ms. Olson, a brother and a sister then offered secret aid to the group, best known for killing the head of the Oakland school board and the kidnapping of the newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst.

Ms. Chapman conceded that Ms. Olson had illegally aided the group by renting apartments and cars for it, under aliases, and had created a number of false identities by using the names of dead infants. But she reminded the judge that this had happened at a time when many young people were questioning authority. Ms. Chapman insisted that Ms. Olson had not helped in the bombing plot and had not even been in Los Angeles at the time.

Judge Fidler responded, "Please, it just doesn't add up."

He said Ms. Olson's lawyers had failed to convince him that she had made anything but an informed decision earlier when pleading guilty. When he asked why, if Mr. Serra had been such a bully, Ms. Chapman had never spoken up, Ms. Chapman shrugged and said she had done so today.

The prosecutors were also scornful of Ms. Olson's assertion that she had been coerced into the plea by an overbearing lawyer.

Eleanor Hunter, an assistant district attorney, derided the contention as "the girl defense," and mocked it by saying, "I was a girl and couldn't stand up to a big strong man."

Sometimes trial judges will not tolerate such personal ridicule, but Judge Fidler listened and added his own comments.

Besides rejecting most of the defense arguments, he dismissed as "abhorrent" the defense's assertion that after Sept. 11 Ms. Olson could not get a fair trial because the mood of the country had grown so pro- government.

After offering his withering analysis of Ms. Olson's contentions, he concluded, "The plea stands."

Ms. Olson did not move, while two of her daughters, sitting nearby, broke down in sobs.

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