Harrises' Bail Set at $1-Million Each

Though moved by support for the former SLA members, a judge says she could be reading such things about the victim of their alleged crime.

Los Angeles Times/February 2, 2002
By Eric Bailey

Sacramento -- Weighing their notorious past in the Symbionese Liberation Army against two decades as reborn solid citizens, a Superior Court judge on Friday ordered William and Emily Harris held on $1-million bail each in a bloody 1975 bank robbery in a Sacramento suburb.

Judge Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye listened to more than an hour of heartfelt testimonials from family and friends of the two erstwhile revolutionaries before rejecting calls for lower bail that would have allowed them to return to lives left behind after their arrest Jan. 17.

The judge said she was moved by the scores of letters from supporters of the former spouses, who served nearly eight years in state prison for SLA crimes and then forged new careers, donated to charitable causes and established strong family ties. Cantil-Sakauye said she was convinced that they had indeed experienced a quarter century of "metamorphosis and wisdom and maturity" since the shotgun slaying of 42-year-old Myrna Opsahl during a bank robbery in Carmichael.

But it wasn't enough to sway her, Cantil-Sakauye told a silent courtroom crowded with the Harris' friends. "I realized I could also be reading those letters about Myrna Opsahl."

The case may have grown dusty with time, the judge added, but it remains "very serious and very much alive" in the Sacramento community, where Opsahl is remembered as a God-fearing mother of four. She was at the bank to count church dues when gun-wielding SLA members stormed the branch.

Defense attorneys expressed dismay over the judge's ruling, but resolved to quickly work with the pair's supporters to raise the bail, perhaps by early next week. If they cannot come up with the full $1 million, the attorneys plan to return to court to plead again for lower bail.

"To set bail at such a high amount is tantamount to punishment," Charles E. Bourdon, the San Francisco attorney representing Emily Harris, said after the hearing. Attorneys were seeking $200,000 bail for William Harris and $500,000 for his former wife, who now goes by her maiden name, Emily Montague.

Stuart Hanlon, William Harris' attorney, also groused that prosecutors are attempting to "inflame the public" post-Sept. 11 by suggesting the SLA defendants are terrorists "instead of dealing with the present reality"--that neither defendant is a public threat or likely to flee to avoid prosecution.

They also rejected the judge's rationale that $1 million bail was appropriate because it matched that set in Los Angeles after the 1999 arrest of Sara Jane Olson.

The attorneys noted that Olson, a former SLA member who reinvented herself as a Minnesota soccer mom, had been a fugitive for two decades. William and Emily Harris, in contrast, served time for SLA crimes, and refused to flee in recent weeks despite looming charges for Opsahl's slaying.

But prosecutors said the bail was appropriate given the serious nature of the crime. Deputy Dist. Atty. Rob Gold noted that William Harris had served for a time as SLA "general field marshal," and Emily Harris was "at the center of that revolutionary core" that made the SLA one of the oddest and most violent bands of militants to emerge from the Vietnam-era tumult.

"The irony," Gold said, "is that the Harrises now have become the people they used to despise."

William and Emily Harris appeared in court Friday with Olson and Michael Bortin, 53, who also face murder charges in the bloody bank robbery. A fifth defendant, James Kilgore, has been a fugitive since the 1970s.

Olson, 55, was sentenced Jan. 18 to 20 years to life in prison for a failed bombing attempt against LAPD officers in 1975, and is ineligible for bail. As she entered the courtroom Friday in a jail jumpsuit, Olson flashed a beaming smile and said hello to a friend in the audience.

Bortin, extradited from his home in Oregon earlier in the week, was grim-faced as the judge set his bail hearing for next Friday.

William Harris, 57, and Emily Harris, 54, both wore street clothes for the hearing, though their ankles were shackled. In a front row, William Harris' wife, attorney Rebecca Young, sat with eldest son Shane, 13.

Though he served as the SLA's leader after the bloody shootout and fire in Los Angeles that killed several of the group's top leaders in 1974, friends said in court Friday that William Harris was fully rehabilitated. He had started a new career as a private investigator, became a devoted father, coached youth soccer and sank roots in the east San Francisco Bay Area. Among those who offered testimonials of support Friday was a San Francisco Superior Court commissioner and a research attorney at the California Supreme Court.

Emily Harris was described as a compassionate contributor to causes big and small, from AIDS walks to youth basketball programs. She has lived for years in the Los Angeles area with another woman, and shaped a successful career as a computer consultant.

Barbara Shoup, an Indianapolis woman who got to know Harris when they were college sorority sisters, said her longtime friend had been changed by the years. She corresponded with Harris in prison, and early letters were angry and "quite political," a reflection of her SLA days, when the group was thrust into national headlines with the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.

"But as time went on, Emily's true voice came back to me," said Shoup, a writer and teacher.

"Those were very strange times we grew up in," Shoup added. "We were all shaped by the politics of those times....We all grew up, and we don't see things in the same way."

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