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SENTENCING THE SYMBIONESE LIBERATION ARMY: Why the Plea Agreement Is Too Lenient, and What Can Be Done About It


Sunday, Nov. 18, 2002

After decades spent as fugitives, five members of the Symbionese Liberation Army --a "revolutionary" organization that committed a string of crimes including murders in California in the Seventies - have finally been brought to justice.

Earlier this month, on November 7, Sara Jane Olson (formerly Kathleen Soliah) and three other SLA members pled guilty to second-degree murder for the shooting of a bank customer in the midst of a robbery. On February 14 of next year, each will receive agreed-upon sentences of six, seven, or eight years for his or her role in the crime. (A fifth SLA member, who has since been apprehended, may also join them.)

And last year, on October 31, Olson - who had changed her name from Soliah to conceal her identity - had pled guilty to possession of explosives with intent to murder police officers. Recently, the California parole board, after re-evaluating her sentence, held that Olson should serve at least fourteen years for her crime.

Are these sentences fair? To answer that question, it's necessary to look at the SLA's history, and the particulars of its crimes. In light of the SLA's purpose and past, the six-to-eight-year sentences for the bank customer's murder are far too lenient - particularly in light of California's current, and otherwise harsh sentencing practices.

You Say You Want a Revolution: The SLA's Founding

Shortly thereafter, DeFreeze - who changed his name to "General Field Marshall Cinque Mtume" - recruited a group of white, middle-class college students to form perhaps the most notorious domestic terrorist organization of the 1970s: the so-called Symbionese Liberation Army.

According to General Mtume, the term "Symbionese" derived from symbiosis and meant "a body of dissimilar bodies and organisms living in deep and loving harmony and partnership in the best interest of all within the body."

Apparently, only so much dissimilarity could be tolerated. According to the SLA's motto, the best interest of all within the body meant "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people" - or, in other words, the overthrow of the U.S. government establishment.

The "Revolution" Was Televised: The SLA's Crimes Terrorize California

On November 6, 1973, the SLA began its "revolution" against the "fascist insect" by murdering Dr. Marcus Foster, the African-American superintendent of the Oakland, California school system. The SLA considered him a "fascist" because he had once suggested that the city's students should carry ID cards (a view that Dr. Foster actually no longer held at the time of his death).

Then on February 4, 1974, in its most notorious "revolutionary action," the SLA kidnapped publishing heiress Patricia Hearst from her Berkeley apartment. At first, the SLA held Hearst for a rather novel ransom--asking that her "fascist" father give $70 in free food to every poor person in California. But it soon compelled Hearst to join the cause. (Debate still continues as to whether her conversion was genuine, or faked to save her life, as she later said.)

On May 16, 1974, Hearst - who now went by the nom de guerre "Tania" - assisted two SLA members in knocking over a sporting goods store. The next day, after having received an anonymous tip, over four hundred police officers surrounded an SLA safe house in Los Angeles as news crews filmed the action. Not surprisingly, a gun battle soon erupted.

Six members of the SLA were killed during the ensuing firefight, including its founder, General Mtume. Still, the SLA survived.

On April 21, 1975, the SLA, robbed a Crocker National Bank. In an unforgettable image made by the bank's surveillance camera, Hearst was there with a carbine in tow. The robbery, according to the SLA, was motivated by the political end of overthrowing the "fascist insect."

On August 21, 1975 - in what was apparently the SLA's final crime - Kathleen Soliah attempted to murder two L.A.P.D. officers by planting bombs under their patrol cars. Fortunately, the bombs turned out to be duds.

On September 18, 1975, while looking for Soliah, police discovered and arrested some of the remnants of the SLA, including Hearst. At her booking, Hearst declared her occupation as "urban guerilla."

Hearst served time, and ultimately was pardoned, in a questionable decision by President Clinton at the end of his second term. But five members, including Soliah, remained missing, and wanted by the FBI.

And that was where the history of the SLA stood, that is, until quite recently.

Time... Was Not On Their Side: The SLA's Members Finally Get Sentenced

On June 16, 1999 - after 25 years as a fugitive from justice - while driving her minivan in Minnesota en route to teach a class on citizenship, Soliah was finally arrested. In the interim, she had changed her name to Sara Jane Olson, married, and become a soccer mom.

On October 31, 2001, on the eve of her trial for possession of explosives with intent to murder police officers, Soliah pled guilty to the attempted car bombing. (She maintained her innocence, but said she would not receive a fair trial due to the proximity of the September 11 terrorist attacks.)

Although Soliah later attempted to withdraw her plea, the court held her to it, and ultimately sentenced her to two consecutive terms of ten years to life. But that did not mean Soliah would serve a minimum of twenty years. California law - unlike that of many states and the federal government - still allows for "parole." For that reason, Soliah could have ultimately served as little as five years and three months.

However, the California Board of Prison Terms, the state's parole authority, recently re-evaluated her case, and ruled that Soliah should serve at least 14 years. According to the Board, Soliah's offense required a longer sentence because of the harm that could have resulted; because of the multiple intended victims; and because of its professionalism.

Both the prosecution and the defendants had a good reason to seek a plea agreement. The D.A. admitted there were "substantial legal and evidentiary hurdles" to trying the five for such old offenses. And the defendants knew that if tried and convicted of first-degree murder, they faced life in prison.

Under the terms of the plea agreement, SLA member Montague, the woman Hearst claimed was the actual killer, will serve eight years; William Harris, the lookout during the heist, will serve seven; and Soliah and Michael Bortin, another SLA member, will serve six.

The very next day after the agreement was reached, November 8, Kilgore - the missing fifth member, who had been a fugitive since 1976 - was arrested in South Africa, where he was teaching English at the University of Cape Town. South Africa will soon extradite him to the U.S., where he is likely to be offered and accept a plea agreement similar to those for the other four.

On February 14, 2003, the four SLA members who have already entered pleas - and Kilgore, if he pleads guilty - are scheduled to be sentenced.

Bad, Bad, Bad... Bad Vibrations: Sentences Far Too Lenient For The Crimes

What should we make of these sentences? To begin, six to eight years does not seem nearly high enough for the intentional murder of an innocent civilian such as Opsahl - particularly for Montague, who seems to have been the triggerwoman.

Consider, too, that Opsahl's murder was a terrorist crime - done to serve a political goal, not done as a means to facilitate a simple bank robbery. And it was a murder done by a group that had committed a string of other terrorist crimes.

Not long before the SLA, there was the Manson Family, which also murdered innocents for bizarre political ends. Their members, rightly so, still are in prison and routinely are refused parole. What makes the SLA members any less deserving of severe sentences?

At least two of the SLA members were fugitives from justice for over 25 years (a period of time they probably should have been serving in prison). It seems profoundly unfair for their successful flight from justice - an additional crime - to ironically result in leniency. The result is to reward them for fleeing. What message does that send?

By comparison, in the current era of tough sentencing, ten grams of crack cocaine can get one ten years in a federal prison. For the SLA to get shorter sentences than nonviolent drug criminals, who only possess with intent to distribute, seems almost obscene.

Looking to the California system, the injustice is even more dramatic. Under California's three-strikes law, even a minor third offense, such as a theft of golf clubs or videotapes, can get the culprit a mandatory term of fifty-years-to-life. (Not surprisingly, the U.S. Supreme Court currently is reviewing the constitutionality of the law, and although it may be struck down, it still is a fair barometer of today's sentencing proclivities).

Finally, consider what sentences a modern SLA, whose crimes were committed in 2002, would receive. The furor surrounding the recent sniper case and the John Walker Lindh case indicates that the government would, at a minimum, seek life sentences - if not the death penalty.

Especially in this context, sentences of less than a decade each for cold-blooded, terrorist murder seem absurd and outrageous.

Give Justice a Chance: Why California and the Feds Can Still Do the Right Thing

Just as sentences that are too severe are unjust, so too are sentences that are too lenient. A federal prosecution of the SLA members would likely have resulted in life terms in prison which, in the federal system, would have been served in full, without the possibility of parole.

And federal charges likely could still be brought: After all, this was the robbery of a bank (a federal offense since 1934), not a private home, and it was part of a series of crimes. And double jeopardy does not apply where prosecutions are by separate sovereigns - here, the federal government and California's.

Should the California Board of Prison Terms fail to ensure appropriate sentences for the SLA terrorists, the feds should step in to ensure that the its interests in deterring, incapacitating, and punishing terrorists (even those disguised as soccer moms and university professors) are vindicated.

The murder of Opsahl should have been charged, tried, and pled, as first-degree murder: It was clearly intentional and was a political crime. The California D.A. allowed the SLA defendants to plea to second-degree murder nonetheless most likely out of expediency rather than justice. In the federal system, this kind of charge-bargaining has little effect on the ultimate sentence.

Though the plea agreement for the SLA members appears to have been artificially limited by backroom collaborations and the fading memories of prosecutors, the prison term should be much longer than the plea agreements indicate. One can only hope that the same Board that decided Soliah should serve at least fourteen years for an attempted murder, will similarly do the right thing when it evaluates the bargained-for sentences of Myrna Opsahl's killers.

Mr. Allenbaugh is an Associate at Montedonico, Belcuore & Tazzara, P.C. in Washington, D.C., and is an Adjunct Professor in the Philosophy Department at the George Washington University. The views expressed herein are his own. Prior to entering private practice, he served as a Staff Attorney for the United States Sentencing Commission. Mr. Allenbaugh has published numerous articles on sentencing and criminal justice, and is a co-editor of Sentencing, Sanctions, and Corrections: Law, Policy, and Practice (2d ed., Foundation Press, 2002). He can be reached at Mark.Allenbaugh@mbt-legacom

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