[News] Prison Board Rebuked Over Olson

News at freedomarchives.org News at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jul 14 12:54:33 EDT 2004

Prison Board Rebuked Over Olson


The agency abused its power by increasing the former SLA member's sentence, 
a judge rules.

By Eric Bailey and Gabrielle Banks
Times Staff Writers

July 14, 2004

SACRAMENTO ­ The state Board of Prison Terms abused its power when it more 
than doubled the sentence of former Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara 
Jane Olson, a state judge here has ruled.

The decision could lead to a substantially shorter sentence for Olson, who 
has been serving a 14-year term after pleading guilty to attempting to bomb 
two Los Angeles police squad cars in 1975.

Her case became nationally known after her arrest in 1999 ended two decades 
as one of America's most-wanted fugitives ­ years during which she had 
changed her name and settled into the life of a Minnesota housewife.

In October 2001, Olson was sentenced to five years and four months in 
prison for the failed bombing attempts. A year later, the state Board of 
Prison Terms increased that sentence to 14 years, apparently at the behest 
of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Cecil, in a ruling released late Monday, 
said the board had arbitrarily boosted the sentence without providing an 
"independent evaluation" of assertions by the district attorney's office.

Olson now must receive a new sentencing hearing within 60 days.

Her lawyers expressed delight with Cecil's six-page decision.

Jon Opsahl, whose mother was gunned down during a botched Sacramento bank 
robbery by the SLA in 1975, was outraged. Olson and four other onetime SLA 
members are serving terms of six to eight years in prison in that case as 
part of a plea bargain. Her sentences for the car bombing attempt and the 
robbery are running concurrently.

Shawn Chapman, Olson's attorney, said Michael Latin and Eleanor Hunter, the 
Los Angeles prosecutors credited with helping push the case against Olson 
and other former SLA members, "were hell bent on seeking vengeance and 
single-minded in their approach."

Added Stuart Hanlon, another lawyer for SLA members: "They were on this 
warpath; they hated her personally and they wanted to put her away forever."

Latin, now a judge, declined to comment and Hunter did not return a phone 
call. But L.A. County district attorney spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons called 
the accusations against the pair "the biggest bunch of poppycock I've ever 
heard in my life."

She said Hunter, recently named one of the state's best prosecutors, would 
appear again on behalf of the district attorney's office at the Board of 
Prison Terms to argue for a tough sentence for Olson, 57.

Opsahl credited Latin and Hunter with helping revive the prosecution in 
Sacramento County of his mother's killing. He said he and other family 
members had agreed to go along with the plea bargain in that case largely 
because Olson had already been given 14 years in the Los Angeles case.

The family, he said, held Olson responsible for breathing new life into the 
SLA after the group had frayed after a fiery shootout with Los Angeles 
police in 1974.

"We felt that she was the most culpable after all these years," Opsahl 
said. "She was the sole person responsible for reviving the SLA. If not for 
her, that whole crime spree wouldn't have occurred; my mother wouldn't be 

Opsahl also criticized Cecil, the Sacramento Superior Court judge who had 
presided over the SLA murder case. "All the way down, he took the 
defendants' side on everything," Opsahl said. "It just makes me realize 
that nothing is certain in this life, including the criminal so-called 
justice system."

Cecil's decision has no immediate effect on Olson's status. She has been 
housed for more than two years at the women's prison in Chowchilla. Her 
attorney said Olson could be eligible for release in about two years if the 
Board of Prison Terms did not attempt to boost her sentence again.

Olson lawyer Chapman said the board's original decision circumvented the 
state's sentencing rules, which say that a prisoner can be kept locked up 
longer than her original sentence if she is deemed a danger to society.

Chapman said Olson, known as Kathleen Soliah before fleeing underground in 
the late 1970s, proved to be a public asset during her years on the lam.

In St. Paul, Minn., she married a physician, raised three daughters, acted 
in community plays and volunteered for charities, never running afoul of 
the law.

That life came to an end after a Los Angeles detective persuaded the 
television show "America's Most Wanted" to feature Olson's case. Tips 
poured in, and police arrested her a few weeks later in Minnesota.

A year after Olson's sentencing, the Board of Prison Terms held a hearing 
during which Los Angeles prosecutors argued that she was a serious offender 
who deserved far more time in prison than her original sentence. 
Prosecutors pointed to the serious nature of her crime, her long time on 
the run and other factors.

The two former LAPD officers who escaped injury or death when the pipe 
bombs failed to explode also urged the board to sentence Olson to at least 
14 years, with no time off for good behavior.

The board agreed, and Olson's attorney appealed the ruling, leading to 
Cecil's ruling.



Olson case chronology

Sara Jane Olson, 57, won a petition for a new sentence Monday. The former 
Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) member, previously known as Kathleen 
Soliah, pleaded guilty in connection with an attempted police car bombing 
in 1975.

Aug. 21, 1975: Los Angeles police find unexploded pipe bombs planted under 
two LAPD vehicles. The district attorney charges SLA members Kathleen 
Soliah and James Kilgore with setting up the attack.

June 16, 1999: Soliah, now a 52-year-old Midwestern mother of three known 
as Sara Jane Olson, surrenders to police in St. Paul, Minn.

Oct. 31, 2001: After a two-week trial in Los Angeles County Superior Court, 
Olson pleads guilty to two counts of attempting to explode a destructive 
device with the intent to commit murder. The public mood after the Sept. 11 
attacks would make it impossible to win at a trial, she says.

Jan. 18, 2002: Olson is sentenced to serve five years and four months in 

May 23, 2002: Olson begins her prison sentence.

Oct. 16, 2002: The Board of Prison Terms extends her sentence to 14 years.

Dec. 17, 2003: Olson files a petition to have the 14-year sentence nullified.

July 12, 2004: Sacramento Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Cecil grants Olson 
a new sentencing hearing, to be held within 60 days.

Source: Court documents. Graphics reporting by Gabrielle Banks, Times staff 

Los Angeles Times

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