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Olson plea stuns Minnesota supporters
By Marisa Helms
Minnesota Public Radio
November 1, 2001
Part two of two parts
Click for audio RealAudio

Sara Jane Olson pleaded guilty Wednesday to possessing bombs with intent to murder Los Angeles police officers. The St. Paul resident said despite her guilty plea, she is innocent of the charges. Olson says she wasn't able to get a fair trial in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks. Local supporters say they're surprised, but supportive of Olson's decision.

Sara Jane Olson speaks to concert-goers at a benefit for her on July 9, 2000. She was initially charged with conspiring to murder Los Angles police officers by planting pipe bombs under police cars in 1975 as a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army.
(MPR File Photo/Amy Radil)

Sara Jane Olson, previously known as Kathleen Soliah, had been charged with conspiring to blow up two police cars in 1975. Prosecutors said the bombs were retaliation for the deaths of six Symbionese Liberation Army members who died in a shootout. The bombs never exploded.

Since the incident, Olson, 54, had been living in St. Paul and was arrested here two years ago. The actress and mother of three has always maintained her innocence.

Minneapolis lawyer Steve Cooper helped raise her $1 million bail. He says he thinks Olson should have gone to trial. "If you didn't do it, why should you plead to it? Why should you put yourself at risk for a lengthy prison sentence? I don't know why you would assume that the jury would not have listened to you. If you feel strongly that you didn't do it, you might as well give the jury an opportunity to make a decision," according to Cooper.

Cooper says he doesn't know exactly why Olson made her decision. He says people under a lot of stress can lose confidence that the jury will listen to them.

Olson supporter Peter Rachleff, a history professor at Macalester College, believes pressure is exactly what forced Olson into her plea. He says the Sept. 11 attacks have made it nearly impossible for Olson to get a fair trail. "I don't know if it was the political climate or the reality of jury selection and the ability of the prosecution to use the far more resources they had than the defense had, but I don't think this plea is really about who's guilty and who's innocent, but it's about power and pressure," said Rachleff.

Rachleff notes the judge recently allowed the prosecution to use the term "terrorist organization" for the Symbionese Liberation Army. He says that decision hurt Olson's chances. The SLA was a 1970s revolutionary group that kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst.

Olson maintains she was never a full member of the SLA, but merely friends with some people who were.

Minneapolis lawyer Keith Ellison, an Olson supporter, says the prosecution's strategy focused on guilt by association. "I think it's dangerous to prosecute people for their political views and their political associations. I think you prosecute people for what they do, for their acts," he said.

While Olson had many local supporters, she also had her detractors. Olson's alleged targets were police officers, so many in law enforcement have not been supportive. Police officer David Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, said he is surprised, but happy, about Olson's guilty plea. "They felt that there was enough evidence against her to bring her to trial and I'm glad they, and obviously she was on the lam for a long time, never coming forward, and I think the right thing was done. And if she plead guilty, then she's guilty," Titus said.

Sara Jane Olson told reporters outside the court that she "pleaded guilty to something of which I'm not guilty."

Prosecutors dismissed three other charges, but her sentence was not negotiated. Olson's charges carry a maximum life sentence. Her lawyers are hoping for five years, served in Minnesota so she can be near her family. Olson must surrender to authorities on Jan. 8.