Trial & Era

When Sara Jane Olson goes to court in coming weeks, a Los Angeles jury will be asked to pass judgment on the most divisive time in recent American history.

10:40 a.m., November 17, 2000

THE COURTROOM

The man rises from his seat at the back of the courtroom. He marches across the well-worn gray linoleum to a podium, where he stands and reads from a scrap of paper. His back is to the gallery, and the holstered gun at his side is clearly visible. His broad shoulders shake with anger as he points across the room at a slender woman with a mop of layered strawberry-blond hair. Seated between two lawyers, she cups her angular chin in her palms and leans her elbows on the table in front of her. In his dress blues, Los Angeles Police Officer John Hall makes a towering figure; but right now, he is talking about his fear.

"[They] were using the Web site to solicit terrorist acts against me and my family," Hall begins, decrying Sara Jane Olson as a member of a onetime terrorist group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. "The same as she did with the bombs under our car!"

From across the room, the gravelly voice of one of Olson's defense attorneys, J. Tony Serra, interrupts, objecting. "He is trying to prejudice the jury through the press," Serra shouts. "She was not a member of the SLA!"

Unswayed by the outburst, Hall continues, his irate voice rising to match Serra's fervent pitch. "My wife, my children, my grandchildren live in fear," he quakes. "Now today, into the future, as long as we live in this home, they can take any action to terrorize my family. I'm afraid. And I'm angry." His face crimson with rage, his muscles tense, Hall turns and storms back to his seat, crossing his arms tightly in front of his chest, a flash of bitterness in his eyes.

It is a balmy Friday morning in downtown Los Angeles. It is the year 2000, but here in Judge James Ideman's courtroom on the ninth floor of Los Angeles County's Criminal Courts Building, there is a pronounced aftertaste of the 1970s. This is where the State of California will try Sara Jane Olson, formerly known as Kathleen Soliah, for allegedly placing pipe bombs under two LAPD cars in 1975--a charge she denies.

Hall's anger at Olson is an electric reminder of the same acrimony that erupted violently, two decades ago, between the Los Angeles police and the SLA. First came the L.A. standoff in which the cops killed the band's leader and most of its members, then the alleged bombing under scrutiny here, supposedly a retaliation for the massacre. But as much as this scene has catapulted the courtroom back 25 years to an era of upheaval in this country, it also highlights how the world has changed since that era of activism. At the center of the emotional swirl sits Olson--and each side has molded her into its own symbol. Her foes call her a terrorist filled with hatred of the police. Her friends call her a kindhearted activist who has become a scapegoat for a corrupt legal system.

At today's pretrial hearing, the prosecution is asking that the judge revoke Olson's bail--she's out on $1 million, most of which was raised by family and friends. The district attorneys say she sat idly by as the Sara Olson Defense Fund Committee posted on the Internet the home addresses and phone numbers of Hall and James Bryan, who is now retired from the force. That information briefly appeared on the committee's Web site which is run out of the Twin Cities. The addresses were contained in a court document that was filed publicly, but was then sealed by the court the next day. Committee members insist no malice was intended, that it was a simple oversight, and that they took down the information as soon as they learned of the snafu.

Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James Ideman considers the request, a gruff scowl on his jowly face. He concludes that he does not have the authority to revoke Olson's bail. "I do not have evidence that she was personally involved in this occurrence," he begins. "In some respects, she has responsibility for acts taken in her name." He turns to address Olson, sternly, like a crotchety elder reprimanding a small child. "This is a dangerous game. This is not the type of conduct that should be indulged in. If you have any influence with the people responsible for the Web site, advise them that they are not helping your cause."

Olson quietly nods as Ideman continues his diatribe. "I am cautioning the defense that the actions are reprehensible. I cannot think of a legitimate reason to publish the home addresses of these officers," he scolds. "This is typical SLA conduct. It amounts to intimidation of witnesses."

An exasperated sigh rises from one the gallery's hard wooden pews, filled by Olson's family and friends. Her husband and one daughter are there, along with friends from Minneapolis, friends she's made in Los Angeles, and members of her legal team. Some grumble, some simply shake their head.

An hour ago this crew sat downstairs at a corner table in the cafeteria, chatting and laughing, a scene more like a family reunion than a court appearance. But after coming through the metal detectors and entering this courtroom, which is guarded by four sheriff's deputies, the stakes are demonstrably higher, the mood more somber. If she's convicted, Olson could spend the rest of her life in prison.

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