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TV Trial

A judge has approved the televising of the upcoming trial of Sara Jane Olson, the first time cameras have been allowed in the courtroom for a major trial since the O.J. Simpson case.

L.A. Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler rejected requests by District Attorney Steve Cooley to bar cameras. Olson, who changed her name from Kathleen Soliah, is charged with conspiracy to murder two LAPD officers by helping to plant pipe bombs under their patrol cars in August 1975. The bombs did not detonate. Prosecutors say Olson was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), which kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst and committed two murders and two bank robberies.

Kyle Christopherson, assistant public-information officer for the court, said the plan is to allow three fixed TV cameras and one still camera. “The TV cameras will not be permitted to pan the courtroom. And under no circumstances will the jury members be shown.” Christopherson said Fidler hopes to use this trial to “set a precedent” for how things should be done. “He especially wants to show his fellow judges, who have opposed televising trials, that you can put cameras in the courtroom and not disturb the proceedings.” Fidler will decide on a case-by-case basis which witnesses can be televised and will prohibit TV coverage of testimony about bomb-making. Court sessions are scheduled to begin Monday with two to three weeks of pretrial motions.

Many judges dislike operating under the constant whir of the TV camera, which, as the O.J. case demonstrated, can lead the public to scrutinize all participants, including the man or woman in the black robe. (Initial requests to televise the trial had been rejected by Judge James Ideman, who has since been reassigned to Torrance.)

The L.A. County District Attorney’s Office opposed televising the trial, claiming it might jeopardize the potential prosecution of Olson in Sacramento for the murder of Myrna Opsahl, a bank customer killed during the SLA‘s robbery of a Carmichael bank. However, Sacramento prosecutors have been unwilling to file a case against Olson in connection with the bank heist and murder.

The D.A.’s Office contended that televising the trial would reveal bomb-making secrets, endanger witnesses such as Hearst and impair Olson‘s right to a fair trial.

Alonzo Wickers, an attorney representing Court TV, insists the D.A.’s concerns were baseless. “This case is undeniably a part of L.A.‘s history. And there is substantial interest by the public in hearing that history,” says Wickers, of Davis Wright Tremaine, which also represents L.A. Weekly. “The public’s interest and the public‘s faith in the fairness of the system will be best served by viewing the actual trial, rather than depending on abbreviated accounts by journalists in newspapers.”

Wickers says the bomb-making technology is nearly three decades old, and available on the Internet. Moreover, he takes issue with the privacy concerns. “Patty Hearst has already talked about her kidnapping and subsequent involvement in the SLA bank robbery on television and in print interviews,” he says.

In fact, Olson has contended that televising her trial is the only way she can be sure of getting a fair trial.

Cooley’s opposition to the cameras seemed to contradict statements he made during a debate with Gil Garcetti last summer. When Garcetti remarked that he now vehemently opposed televising trials, Cooley responded, “As a matter of principle, cameras should probably be in the courtroom. The public should see what‘s going on there.” As for Olson’s request that her trial be televised, Cooley responded, “That‘s a good point. But she can’t waive the privacy rights of others.”

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