[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
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
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
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
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
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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