In the Spotlight

News & Features
Olson pleads guilty
By Frank Stoltze
Minnesota Public Radio
November 1, 2001
Part 1 of 2 parts
Click for audio RealAudio

The case of alleged ex-Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson came to an abrupt end Wednesday in Los Angeles. Olson, saying she couldn't get a fair trial in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, agreed to plead guilty to charges she possessed bombs with the intent to murder LAPD officers in 1975. Olson, 54, changed her name from Kathleen Soliah and was a fugitive for more than two decades before being arrested in St. Paul, where she was living the live of a soccer mom with three kids and a physician husband.

Sara Olson, alleged to be formerly known as Kathleen Soliah (pictured), maintained her innocence and said she was never a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
Loyola University law professor Laurie Levenson thinks delay tactics put Olson's defense at a disadvantage. Levenson told MPR's Lorna Benson the defense may have been better off entering a guilty plea early on. Listen to the interview.


Olson, labeled a domestic terrorist by prosecutors, said it didn't take long for her to realize that Sept. 11 would hurt her case. " "The minute that that happened, it became clear to me that that incident was going to have a remarkable effect on the outcome of this trial," she said.

Olson was accused of planting pipe bombs packed with nails underneath two LAPD cars as a member of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army. The bombs did not go off. The short-lived SLA was best known for the kidnapping of Patty Hearst. In fact, Hearst was expected to testify against Olson.

But Olson's attorney, Tony Serra, said with people looking to the police to protect them from terrorist attacks, it would have been hard to find an impartial jury. "Justice weeps for Sara Jane Olson. She's truly a victim of Sept. 11. We don't have a level playing field any longer in this kind of a case," Serra said.

In exchange for Olson pleading guilty, prosecutors dropped three charges against her, including conspiracy to commit murder.

L.A. Deputy District Attorney Michael Latin said they had plenty of evidence to convict her of all the charges, but were happy to get the guilty pleas. "We're pleased that after 27 years, she's finally been held accountable for what she did," Latin said.

Some had criticized prosecutors for going after a woman who is now viewed as a good citizen, volunteering for charitable organizations and participating in community theater in St. Paul. But Deputy D.A. Eleanor Hunt, displaying a replica of the potentially deadly bombs Olson planted, said Olson shouldn't get a free pass from justice. "You've heard a lot about the bomb itself. Some people have a misconception, 'It's just a little tiny bomb.' It was one of the biggest bombs, if not the biggest pipe bomb in the history of the United States," according to Hunt.

Olson is expected to be sentenced to about five years behind bars. She could get up to life in prison if a parole board determines she is a danger to society. Prosecutors have agreed not to fight Olson's efforts to serve her time in Minnesota, but plan to push for a longer sentence.

Olson remained defiant, saying she was never a member of the SLA and is unashamed of her political activism - then and now. "I'm still the same person I was then. I believe in democracy for all people and all the things that that entails. And I don't have any regrets. I'm proud," she said.

In fact, Olson said when she goes to prison, she hopes to learn more about the plight of the increasing number of women incarcerated in the U.S.

Part two: Olson plea stuns Minnesota supporters