Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler has ordered Sara Jane Olson back to court in Los Angeles, to explain why she pleaded guilty to trying to blow up two police cars in the 1970s, then told reporters she was innocent of the charges. Olson is an alleged member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, or SLA. She was a fugitive for more than two decades before being arrested in 1999 in St.Paul, where she lived with her physician husband and three daughters.
In a loud, clear voice inside Department 106 of the Los Angeles criminal courts building Wednesday, Olson pleaded guilty to possessing bombs with the intent to murder police officers in 1975. Moments later, outside the courtroom, Olson said she didn't do it.
"I pleaded guilty to something of which I am not guilty."
Olson said she pleaded guilty because she didn't believe someone accused of domestic terrorism could get a fair trial in the wake of September 11, and in hopes of getting a lighter prison sentence. Prosecutors agreed to drop three other charges, including conspiracy to commit murder.
But her claims of innocence have angered Judge Fidler, who has ordered a special hearing in his private chambers to consider whether the guilty plea remains valid in light of Olson's public denials.
"If it turns out that, in fact, she is simply saying 'I did not commit any crime and there are no facts that would establish my guilt,' I think he has the legal authority to say, 'I am not going to accept this guilty plea,'" says UCLA law professor George Cardona.
L.A. Deputy District Attorney Michael Latin, who prosecuted Olson, said he'd never seen a situation like this one before.
But defendants cut deals with prosecutors all the time. Sometimes they admit to doing things they didn't do, because they think their chances of a jury finding them not guilty are slim. Still, Cardona said that's not how it's supposed to work.
"We want the criminal justice system to actually reflect findings as to what actually happened, and not just be a bargaining place between the parties," Cardona says.
At minimum, legal analysts called Olson's public declaration of innocence stupid, since Judge Fidler has yet to sentence her.
She was hoping to get about five years in prison, but Fidler has the latitude to sentence her to a life sentence.More from MPR