SLA History Won’t Be Barred in Olson Trial


Staunchly declaring her innocence, a shaken Sara Jane Olson said Friday that she was outraged by a judge’s decision to allow the criminal history of the Symbionese Liberation Army to be included as evidence in her upcoming trial on charges that she conspired to kill two Los Angeles police officers in 1975.

“I’m outraged at what has happened,” a teary-eyed Olson told a crowd of reporters shortly after the ruling. “I’m innocent.

“This is a case in which they’re trying to take away my freedom forever and destroy me and my family.”


Olson, 52, had hoped that Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler would decide that details about crimes including two killings and the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst--none of which she has ever been charged with--would unfairly prejudice the jury. Fidler instead decided to allow evidence about the SLA, but said he would screen it first to be sure it was relevant. Olson’s trial is scheduled to begin April 30.

Friday’s ruling, characterized by Olson’s attorneys as the most important that will occur in the case, was the latest setback for the alleged former SLA member, who was arrested in July 1999 in St. Paul, Minn., after 24 years as a fugitive.

Two weeks ago, the FBI and Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department announced that they are reopening an investigation into allegations that Olson and other SLA members participated in a 1975 bank robbery in Carmichael, Calif., in which Myrna Opsahl, a mother of four, was shot to death.

The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and Opsahl’s family have been pushing Sacramento officials to reopen the case since Olson’s arrest.

On Friday, Olson, who is married and has three daughters, denied taking part in the fatal bank robbery or in planting bombs under LAPD squad cars. The bombs did not detonate.

“‘I was not in Los Angeles. I did not place those bombs under those cars. I was not in the Carmichael bank. . . . I am innocent, and I have a family that I have to keep together through all of this, and thank God, they’re all very strong,” she said.


Olson, who changed her name from Kathleen Soliah while in hiding, also denies that she was a member of the SLA. Prosecutors say she joined the SLA after six members, including her best friend, were killed in a bloody shootout with Los Angeles police in 1974.

Olson’s attorneys asked Fidler, who took over the case last month, to reverse a decision by the previous judge, James Ideman, allowing prosecutors to introduce evidence about the SLA, including two murders, two bank robberies and the Hearst kidnapping. Some of the crimes were committed before prosecutors claim Olson joined the SLA.

The defense had criticized Ideman, who they believed favored the prosecution. Olson and her supporters were hoping that Fidler, who was assigned to the downtown Los Angeles case after Ideman was transferred to another courthouse, would rule differently. But the new judge agreed with Ideman.

Fidler did, however, say that he would scrutinize potential evidence to be sure it is relevant and told the defense it could stipulate that the SLA committed some of the acts to save time and testimony. Fidler’s decision, which the defense says it will not appeal, means the trial will probably last several months.

Defense attorneys Tony Serra and Shawn Chapman argued that allowing testimony about the SLA, a 1970s radical group led by an escaped felon that sought to overturn the government, was unjust.

The attorneys said they can easily prove that Olson is innocent of the charges filed against her. But it will be harder to win an acquittal if the jury is told about the horrific crimes of the SLA, they said.


“Don’t let them turn this case into a circus. Don’t let them prosecute the SLA and the SLA ideology under the guise of prosecuting this case,” Serra told Fidler.

“We want a level playing field. . . . We are not here to defend the ideology or political structure of the SLA. We can’t win that.”

But Deputy Dist. Attys. Eleanor Hunter and Michael Latin argued that the actions of the SLA, including those that occurred before Olson is alleged to have joined, are relevant.

The two prosecutors say the money the SLA made from the Carmichael bank robbery helped pay for the materials used to make the bombs that were planted under two LAPD squad cars a few months later.

They say the testimony also will show that Olson was cold-hearted, having allegedly joined the SLA while knowing it was responsible for the brutal killing of Oakland schools Supt. Marcus Foster and the kidnapping of Hearst.

“There was a lot of publicity about how violent they were, yet the defendant decided to voluntarily join the group,” Hunter said.