Judge won't allow former SLA fugitive to withdraw guilty plea for 1970s bomb plot

Tuesday, December 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Former Symbionese Liberation Army fugitive Sara Jane Olson lost an attempt to withdraw her guilty plea for a 1970s police bombing plot, drawing scathing remarks from a judge who questioned her honesty.

``I couldn't for a minute accept a guilty plea from a person who I believed was innocent,'' Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler said Monday in denying her plea attempt. ``I couldn't sleep. I intend to sleep well tonight.''

Olson left the courthouse without comment. Her attorney, Shawn Snider Chapman, said she was considering an appeal.

Olson remained free on $1 million bond was scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 18. She could face 20 years to life.

``She's an escape artist and every time she's boxed in she looks for a way out,'' Deputy District Attorney Michael Latin said. ``It's time to face the music.''

Before ruling, Fidler gave Olson a chance to take the stand for cross-examination about her role in the case. She refused.

``It speaks volumes that Ms. Olson will not submit to cross-examination,'' the judge said.

Olson, 54, was a fugitive for more than 20 years until her 1999 arrest on charges she tried to murder officers by planting bombs under police cars to in 1975 avenge the deaths of six SLA members in a 1974 shootout. The bombs didn't explode.

She had been living in Minnesota as the wife of a doctor and mother of three children and had changed her name from Kathleen Soliah.

The status of her case has seesawed since Oct. 31, when she announced a surprise decision to plead guilty to possessing bombs with intent to murder police officers. But her plea was thrown into question when, immediately after leaving the courtroom, she told reporters she was really innocent.

Fidler ordered her back to court a week later to explain herself. She reaffirmed her plea but asserted she was guilty under the theory of aiding and abetting, adding that she did not possess bombs and never tried to blow up police cars.

Then last month she asked to withdraw her plea and go to trial.

``We don't accept guilty pleas from innocent people,'' Fidler said Monday. ``I took those pleas twice. I hate to put it (this way), but were you lying to me then or are you lying to me now?''

Olson said she was persuaded to plead guilty because the attacks of Sept. 11 created a climate in which she could be found guilty by jurors biased against anyone accused of domestic terrorism _ even if the alleged crimes occurred 26 years ago.

The judge denounced the defense for using the Sept. 11 attacks as a reason to say Olson could not get a fair trial.

``It's unfair to those who died Sept. 11 and it's unfair to the prospective jury,'' he said. ``It's ridiculous. It's just another allegation to try to keep this case from going to trial.''

Chapman told the judge co-counsel J. Tony Serra had browbeaten Olson into pleading guilty.

Serra was not in court Monday and the judge called the lawyer's absence ``absurd, unprofessional and inexcusable.''

Serra later faxed a letter to the judge apologizing for his absence. He said he missed his flight.