First battle in SLA trial: Hearst

Sacramento Bee/July 28, 2002
By Mareva Brown and Sam Stanton

Sacramento, Calif. -- To the attorneys for four former Symbionese Liberation Army associates on trial for murder, the matter is simple: Patricia Hearst Shaw is crazy. Or lying. Or both.

In a petition to be heard this week, defense attorneys will take the first shot in what's certain to be a full-scale war against the prosecution's star witness and ask that she be ordered to submit to a psychiatric examination.

Hearst's attorney, George Martinez, dismisses the move as "offensive and difficult to absorb."

Prosecutors in the case consider Hearst a key witness and are expected to argue against the motion.

Now 48, the newspaper heiress was 19 when she was abducted by the SLA from her Berkeley apartment and arrested nearly two years later for her participation in an SLA bank robbery in San Francisco.

Her account of a 1975 robbery of the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, Calif., in which a bank patron was shot to death, provides the basis for prosecutors' case against the SLA members. And it makes her a key target for defense attorneys.

"Since her arrest by the FBI while carrying a loaded revolver, Ms. Hearst has argued to all who would listen that she was the victim of brainwashing," defense attorney Stuart Hanlon said in documents filed this month in Sacramento Superior Court. "There is no speculation on the part of the defense that this prosecution witness became deranged as a result of her experience with the SLA."

That's why Hanlon is asking the court to order a psychiatric examination of Hearst and the release of all past psychiatric examinations.

Hearst has said repeatedly that the defendants - Emily Montague, Bill Harris, Michael Bortin and Sara Jane Olson - helped rob the bank April 21, 1975, and that a shotgun blast from Montague, then known as Emily Harris, killed Myrna Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four.

Hearst has said she helped drive a getaway car but was never inside the bank. All four defendants have said they are innocent, and attorneys say there's no evidence that any of them took part in the robbery.

Hanlon, Montague's attorney, is planning an assault on every facet of Hearst's credibility, assuming the court allows such a tactic at the hearing Friday.

Hearst's attorney said it is "patently foolish" to have her submit to a mental examination now.

"All you have to do is talk to her for five minutes," Martinez said. "The first thing that impresses you is that this is a very bright young woman. ... If you've seen her on any of the talk shows, you can see for yourself how bright she is."

But that isn't the Hearst defense attorneys want to see on the witness stand.

They want the one who they believe has no credibility because of repeated and conflicting statements about the effects of the kidnapping upon her mental state and because she has admitted taking part in numerous SLA crimes in the 1970s.

Although the issue of Hearst's ability to recall facts is critical, it is but one of many pretrial issues attorneys are debating.

Both sides have been overwhelmed by more than 100,000 pages of investigative documents from the FBI related to the Hearst kidnapping and other SLA activity.

Last month, Alex Reisman, an attorney for Bill Harris, sent the judge in the case a letter saying he doubted that he would be prepared in September to begin what is essentially a deposition of witnesses, as had been scheduled.

Prosecutors said they, too, are swimming in investigative reports, but they fear delaying the trial much longer.

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