By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Of all man’s capacities . . . memory [is] the most eerie, pleasant, painful, no doubt at times the most deceptive.”
The Two Faces of January
The trial of Sara Jane Olson, one of the last associates of the Symbionese Liberation Army, was supposed to be the trial of the century -- the last century. Patricia Hearst herself, the SLA‘s most famous victim and member, was to have taken the stand as the star witness to retell the sordid tales of the nine-member band of homegrown terrorists that kidnapped her in 1974. She would tell of gunslinging, bank robbery, bomb making, love, rape, Sapphism, recorded communiques left in trash cans near community radio stations, turgid manifestoes, graffiti, and cockroach-infested hideouts, settling once and for all whether the Nixon-era “revolutionaries” were archcriminals or youthful idealists gone psycho.
“They’re putting a whole generation on trial,” Olson said outside the courtroom last April 30, the resentment and sense of victimization in her strong, theatrical voice carrying beyond the phalanx of television reporters and cameramen. The prosecution couldn‘t have agreed more -- and they were ready to rumble. Their case was to take on the entire 682-day career of the SLA, from the autumn of 1973, when the commandos assassinated Marcus Foster, the popular black superintendent of Oakland’s public schools, through 1974, the “Year of the Soldier,” in which six of the urban guerrillas shot it out with the LAPD‘s newly minted SWAT unit and died, in the premiere episode of live, nationally televised domestic terrorism. It was to end with the rather prosaic and routine capture of Hearst on September 18, 1975, and Olson’s arrest more than two decades later in Minnesota, where she had adopted a new name and a comfortable lifestyle.
The People vs. Sara Jane Olson was not supposed to sputter to an inconclusive end. After two years of delays, three judges, a succession of defense teams, and a series of farcical courtroom antics -- culminating in Olson‘s lead counsel explaining that having missed a flight from Oakland and failed to appear to defend his client put him in such “a state of mind of dank frustration” that he “went home and went back to bed” -- Sara Jane Olson finally had her day in court. She was charged with two counts of attempting to explode bombs with the intent to murder police officers. The pipe bombs, which never exploded, were discovered on August 21, 1975, beneath two LAPD patrol cars, one parked at the International House of Pancakes at 7006 Sunset Blvd., the other at the Hollenbeck Police Station at 2111 E. First St. Olson, prosecutors alleged, planted the weapons, stuffed with short, hardened concrete nails, to avenge the May 17, 1974, deaths of her SLA comrades. To everyone’s amazement, last October 31, she pleaded guilty.
But a few moments after her Halloween-day plea, in the hallway outside the courtroom of Judge Larry Paul Fidler, Olson flatly denied her guilt. Six days later, ordered by Fidler to return to open court, she muttered a reluctant reaffirmation of her plea. Twenty-seven days after that, on December 3, she was back in court, now trying to persuade the judge to allow her to withdraw the plea. If Olson‘s initial plea was a sign of remorse, the woman being asked to accept responsibility for one of the most bizarre and violent passages in recent history wasn’t willing to go along with the ritual of contrition. “I did not make that bomb, I did not possess that bomb, and I did not plant that bomb,” she told Judge Fidler on November 6. “But under the concept of aiding and abetting, I plead guilty.” So much for a decisive verdict on that bygone era.
Not that a trial could have rendered a judgment on history. Besides, treating Olson as a stand-in for the SLA always looked more like prosecutorial overkill than high-minded justice. After all, this was a decades-old, failed bomb plot -- a commonplace, if not exactly routine, crime in the late 1960s and early 1970s that typically involved a fugitive who eventually came in from the cold and owned up to a youthful, sometimes barbarous mistake. The question is simply, why can‘t Olson say “I’m sorry,” and, like so many other refugees from that time and place, move on with her life. Her seeming intransigence invites public scorn and judicial rebuke. For a crime that might have been forgotten, perhaps forgiven, Olson will do hard time.
Like her plea, Sara Jane Olson is deeply inscrutable. Is she, as Judge Fidler declared after her numerous flip-flops, “guilty because she is guilty” and deserving of a five-year prison term, which the judge expects to impose January 18? Or is she, as she asserts, little more than an innocent bystander?
When discussing her guilt or innocence, Sara Jane Olson, in person, is by turns risible and phlegmatic. At 55, she is thin, with a runner‘s body. Sitting in her attorney’s office, she is relaxed, almost too relaxed, as she flings one leg over the arm of her chair, tucks the other against her chest and turns her torso akimbo to make eye contact. It is the pose you expect of a teenage girl, fearful and coquettish all at once -- the ingenue.