From Villain to Victim

In 1976, prosecutors tore Patty Hearst's credibility to shreds. A new case against her SLA partners rests on rehabilitating it

NEWSWEEK/February 4, 2002
By Mark Miller

She was the spoiled rich kid who unaccountably helped her own kidnappers wage a campaign of robbery and wanton violence, a reckless debutante with an extreme case of radical chic. And when she went on trial for taking part in a 1974 San Francisco bank robbery, Patty Hearst's attempts to explain it away were shredded by prosecutors and rejected by the jury: she was convicted and served nearly two years in jail.

Twenty-five years later, Hearst has undergone a transformation from leftist wanna-be to earnest victim. Now 47 and the mother of two daughters, Hearst has established a modestly successful acting career and last year won a full pardon from Bill Clinton. Soon her rehabilitation will be complete when she appears in a California courtroom to testify against four of her old comrades from the Symbionese Liberation Army who will be on trial for murder, in a case that will hinge largely on her credibility. Twenty-five years later, Hearst has undergone a transformation from leftist wanna-be to earnest victim.

The defendants are Emily Harris, William Harris, Sara Jane Olson and Michael Bortin, all of whom allegedly took part in a 1975 bank holdup in Carmichael, Calif., in which a customer, Myrna Opsahl, was shot and killed. All four are expected to plead not guilty. Because the Carmichael robbers wore ski masks, the prosecution will rely on Hearst to prove that the defendants were there. Hearst, who had become an SLA member calling herself "Tania," has admitted taking part in the heist, although she says she was only driving a getaway car. In her version, Emily, Olson and Bortin were inside the bank and William was stationed outside with another SLA member, Steven Soliah. Hearst says Emily directed the stickup and that Emily, carrying a shotgun with a finicky trigger, later said she shot Opsahl by accident.

The question now is whether Hearst, with her admitted involvement in the SLA's campaign of armed violence, will be a credible witness. The Carmichael case has been gathering dust for 20 years precisely because prosecutors thought her testimony was unreliable. In her book and at her trial in 1976, Hearst said she became an SLA member under duress because she was beaten and raped while imprisoned for months in a closet in an SLA safe house. Prosecutors didn't buy it, and neither did the jury that convicted her. James L. Browning, the former federal prosecutor who tried Hearst, says, "It was pretty plain from the evidence that she did everything voluntarily. That's the way I feel about it, and probably her testimony [in the new case] is going to be somewhat suspect."

William Harris, now in jail, told NEWSWEEK two years ago that Hearst was never tortured, raped or coerced. In retrospect, Harris said he thought Hearst's conversion to the SLA cause was a prime example of Stockholm syndrome, in which hostages come to identify with their captors. "We're accused of brainwashing her," Harris said. "That's ridiculous - we didn't know how to do that." He said gang members were "infatuated with the political theater" of Hearst's transformation and that no one understood the psychological dynamic between the prisoner and her captors. "It was beyond our control and hers," he said. "We were all swept up in the thing."

Now they loathe each other. In a recent interview on CNN, Hearst compared the SLA members to Timothy McVeigh and Charles Manson and said they were conducting "their own little jihad" against the United States. Stuart Hanlon, the San Francisco attorney who is representing Emily Harris, says Hearst's performance was a disingenuous attempt to portray herself as a victim. "She has continually used her money, her position, to try to rewrite history," Hanlon said. "She took no responsibility for anything she ever did."

Hearst's attorney did not respond to NEWSWEEK's request for comment. But Michael Latin, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Olson in a separate case, says he thinks Hearst will be very effective on the stand. For one thing, her credibility problems have diminished over the years, and in this case, unlike her own trial, she does not need to persuade the jurors she is innocent. "She knows the truth and she is willing to tell the truth," Latin says. "That is really all that is required." Because California had no death penalty when the crime was committed, the defendants will not face execution if convicted. But they could spend the rest of their lives in prison if the jury believes the woman they called Tania.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.