Why the SLA Still Haunts Us
The sight of four aging, middle class former Symbionese Liberation Army members, Sara Jane Olson, Emily and Bill Harris, and Michael Bortin being arrested and charged with the murder of Maria Opsahl during a bank robbery in 1975 stirred an instant flashback. I thought of conversations I had with several of the mostly black residents in South-Central Los Angeles in May 1974. The day before they had watched the tiny house in their neighborhood engulfed in flames, and the six SLA members trapped inside go down to fiery deaths in a frantic shoot-out with Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT team members.
They were furious that the SLA had picked their neighborhood to make their last bloody stand against the police. They were fearful that in the gun battle with police more innocents would be killed. That didn't happen. But their fear and anger were another irony in the brief but bloody saga of the SLA.
The group rose to national dread with the cowardly ambush murder of Marcus Foster, the highly popular and respected black Oakland school superintendent, a string of bank robberies in which Opsahl was killed, the shoot-up of a sporting goods store in Inglewood, California during a robbery, and the celebrated kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst. They claimed to be making their revolution on behalf of "oppressed" blacks and minorities. But their bizarre name, their convoluted, delusional communiques and their manifestos declaring war against America doomed any chance they had of getting faint sympathy from blacks.
But their crackpot rants and murderous acts struck a sympathetic chord with Olson, the Harrises and a handful of other children of white middle-class privilege. They saw the SLA as conquering heroes battling American injustice. When the SLA imploded, Olson went on the lam for two decades. She eventually was caught and charged with attempting to bomb and murder police officers in Los Angeles in August 1975 in a murderous rage over the slaying of the SLA members. She made a conflicted plea bargain in the case and received a stiff twenty-year to life sentence. The Harrises served time for kidnapping Hearst. The Harrises and Olson have said little publicly about their past. A fifth defendant, James Kilgore, is still at large.
The Opsahl trial will be another sorry testament to that past. Prosecutors claim that they have forensic evidence, witness testimony and Hearst's public claim in her 1982 book, "Every Secret Thing" that they were the robbers and shooters. But prosecutors bank on more than the physical evidence and eyewitness testimony to convict them, they are banking on their terrorist past and anger over public revulsion over the September 11 terror massacre at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
At first glance it appears that the September 11 attacks and the SLA's violent past have hopelessly stacked the deck against them. They almost certainly will argue that no jury can be even remotely objective toward them for belonging to a terrorist group.
It would stretch human credulity to the outer limit to expect many potential jurors in Sacramento, California where the case will be tried, to close their eyes and pretend that the September 11 carnage didn't happen, or that it has little relation to the murderous SLA terror of the past. Before the aborted Olson trial in L.A., the defense submitted a statement from Karen Jo Koonan, a trial consultant with the National Jury Project, in which she flatly said that the SLA's past and the events of September 11 would stoke juror bias toward Olson.
Still, it's a mistake to presume that jurors are so blinded by hatred and passion over September 11, and rage over the Opsahl killing, that they will reflexively turn stone ears to anything the defense has to say. The history of high profile trials hardly bears this out. In the trials of the Menendez brothers, the four LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King, and O.J. Simpson, media and public opinion were ferocious. Yet there were acquittals and deadlocked juries in these cases. And, despite colossal public revulsion of the SLA, Olson's brother, Stephen Soliah, an alleged SLA member, was acquitted in 1977 of the bank robbery in which Opsahl was slain.
The four are charged with murdering an innocent suburban housewife at a time when Americans have monumental sympathy for victims of violent crimes, not to mention victims of terrorist acts. But the case will rise and fall on whether prosecutors can effectively present credible evidence and testimony to prove that the four are murderers and domestic terrorists; and whether the defense can effectively rebut that evidence and testimony and prove that they aren't. The case won't be a slam-dunk victory for either side. But the hard reality is that the SLA's grotesque past will haunt them every moment of the trial.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website: www.thehutchinsonreport.com He is the author of The Crisis in Black and Black (Middle Passage Press).