Trial & Era

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


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.

Little of substance happens in the courtroom today. Most of the hearing is dedicated to the Web-site debacle. The original reason for this court appearance, however, was to allow the defense to request large quantities of evidence from the prosecution that Olson's attorneys need to go over in order to be ready for trial. It's the usual standoff about discovery: The prosecution says it has turned over the evidence; the defense says it hasn't seen it. Ideman postpones a decision on the matter, pondering whether to bring in an outside party to keep track of all the evidence. By the end of the hearing, the defense is no closer to getting the information it needs. (Since then Ideman has appointed another judge to sort out the discovery morass.)

Still, Ideman is adamant that the case begin as planned, on January 8. (Several weeks later, Ideman was reassigned to another court; at press time it appeared likely that Olson's trial would be postponed.) The trial could go on for six months, even a year, simply because of its massive scope. Although Olson was indicted in 1976 by a grand jury for attempted murder and conspiracy, Ideman says he will allow evidence from 22 other unindicted felony counts ascribed to the SLA--even though Olson herself is not accused of those crimes.

"Ideman has allowed in the kitchen sink," says Laurie Levenson, a professor at Los Angeles's Loyola Law School, who has been keeping an eye on the case. "The reason for that is to take jurors back in time to a period where radical groups posed a real threat to the community. The idea is to make the crimes look so bad that any connection with the movement makes the defendant look guilty." It's a strategy, Levenson says, that not all judges would employ, but then, "[Ideman] is perceived as one of the more prosecution-oriented judges."

The People of California vs. Sara Jane Olson has mushroomed into a trial not just of one woman, accused of conspiring to commit murder, but of the whole Symbionese Liberation Army--perhaps even an entire era of radical, sometimes violent protest. Only a jury can decide whether Olson was indeed a member of the SLA and whether she did in fact plant those bombs under the cars of officers Hall and Bryan. Only a jury can determine which image of history, and of Sara Olson, should stand.


November 6, 1973


In an instant, the ragtag cult of escaped convicts and white suburban protesters burst into the national limelight. They called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army, and their first act of revolutionary violence was the November 1973 murder, with cyanide bullets, of Marcus Foster, the popular black superintendent of schools in Oakland. The group, whose emblem became a seven-headed cobra, coined its name from the word symbiosis, a biological term describing the coexistence of unlike organisms for their mutual benefit. The small band of soldiers vowed to fight the growing inequities of power and wealth between social groups that resulted from the evils of capitalism, racism, sexism, and imperialism.

"The SLA was born in white suburbs, nurtured in affluence, schooled in the protest politics of the civil rights movement and Vietnam War," authors Vin McLellan and Paul Avery wrote in their 1977 chronicle of the group's quick rise and fall, The Voices of Guns. "They were young radicals who had defined themselves as revolutionaries in the late Sixties, when the horizon seemed full of possibilities. They had been caught treading water as tension waned with quieter years. Finally they had reached the point where they had to vitalize the dream with their own lives, their own bodies, or at last surrender the heroic self-image for the more mundane role of middle-class survivor."

Foster's murder bewildered the country. But the following February, the SLA became an international sensation when it abducted 19-year-old heiress Patty Hearst, committing a terrorist act against the American aristocracy. Within months of her kidnapping, it appeared that Hearst had flipped from victim to ally, joining the SLA cause and taking up arms in a San Francisco bank robbery. At her subsequent trial and in her 1982 autobiography, Every Secret Thing, Hearst explained that she had been brainwashed by her captors and forced into participating in their crimes. Hearst's abduction, arrest, and trial captivated the world, making the granddaughter of the legendary publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst one of the most recognized icons of the Seventies.  

One of the SLA's most memorable images came on May 17, 1974. Six of the revolutionaries--Hearst, who was renamed Tania, was not among them--took refuge in a "safe house" in Los Angeles. The Los Angeles police, who had picked up the group's trail as they were on the lam from the Bay Area, surrounded the house. But the SLA refused to capitulate, and when the police lobbed tear gas into the home, the group opened fire on the police. During the shootout the house caught fire; the nation watched as the six army members were either shot or burned to death on live television.

Among the dead was Angela Atwood, who had worked in Berkeley as a waitress and actress with Kathleen Soliah, later to be known as Sara Jane Olson. According to McLellan and Avery, Soliah organized a memorial in Berkeley's Ho Chi Minh Park on June 2. By this time, the remaining SLA members, Bill and Emily Harris and Hearst, had fled to the Bay Area. McLellan and Avery describe the rally, saying that Soliah spoke passionately about her fallen friend.

"'I believe that Angela was a truly revolutionary woman,'" the book quotes Soliah as saying. "'And the amazing thing is that she and her women comrades came from the same background as many of us here. They were white, middle-class people with a lot of advantages who had gotten into the women's struggle and then generalized that struggle to include all people.' The TV cameras panned the crowd, then zoomed in on Soliah at the microphone as she roused the crowd with a chanted salute. To Bill, to Emily, to Tania she cried, 'Keep fighting! I'm with you! We're with you!'...Soliah had virtually enlisted in the SLA before the TV cameras."

The speech would come back to haunt her 25 years later. Olson contends that she was never a member of the SLA. Today her supporters say that the rally, a eulogy to a brutally slain friend, was her only connection to the group. But McLellan and Avery's book--as well as Hearst's book--assigns Kathleen Soliah a far greater role in the SLA in the wake of the safe-house shootout. According to these accounts, Soliah offered money and shelter to the fugitives, later joining their cause and participating in what turned into a murderous bank robbery.

In 1976 a Los Angeles grand jury indicted Soliah on charges of attempted murder and conspiracy for placing pipe bombs under two police cars on August 21, 1975. Although the bombs did not detonate and no one was hurt, the police saw this as retaliation against the cops who had killed the SLA members. But by the time the indictment was handed down, Soliah had disappeared. She would stay underground for nearly a quarter-century, rebuilding a life as a loving wife, devoted mother, amateur actress, gourmet cook, and human-rights activist in St. Paul, Minnesota.

June 16, 1999


Olson had just pulled her Plymouth minivan out of the driveway of her Highland Park home, on her way to teach an early-morning citizenship class, when a cadre of FBI agents stopped her. With her broad, bucktoothed smile, Olson hardly looked the part of a vigilante. She was booked into the Ramsey County Jail, and then extradited to Los Angeles County.

The story was an immediate sensation. A terrorist in a soccer mom's clothing? Many of her friends and family flew out to California for her first court appearance. They culled $1 million to bail her out of jail. As the case got going, watchers were transported back to the turbulent 1970s, recalling their own memories of the SLA and Patty Hearst.

Why seek out Olson out, after so much time? As the authorities put it, they had gotten a lead after Soliah's picture aired on a May 15, 1999 episode of America's Most Wanted, which aired just two days before the 25th anniversary of the SLA shootout. Someone had called in with information about the fugitive's whereabouts.

Thus far, Olson's journey through the California courts has been bumpy. She's being represented by two prominent California defense attorneys with markedly different styles. J. Tony Serra is a showman, with a flair for the dramatic; in court he bolts out of his seat often, his wispy white ponytail bouncing behind him. His claim to fame has been defending antiestablishment clients and accused cop killers. Shawn Chapman is young and savvy, with an easy laugh that exudes competence. She cut her teeth working for Johnnie Cochran defending such high-profile clients as O.J. Simpson and Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt.  

"This case is a nightmare," Chapman exclaims. "When police officers are the victims, the DA's office takes it very seriously, because the police take it very seriously. When they arrested her, they were intent on a vigorous prosecution." And that's no easy feat when 25 years have passed; key witnesses for both sides have died. Chapman also says she has had difficulty getting a look at forensic evidence the prosecution has amassed that supposedly links Olson to the bombs.

Olson faces five charges: conspiracy to commit murder, two counts of possession of a destructive device, and two counts of attempted explosion of a destructive device with the intent to murder. Though the prosecution has generally been tight-lipped about the trial, it has allowed that this is not a "slam-dunk case." One piece of evidence heard by the 1976 grand jury was the testimony of a plumbing-supply store clerk who identified a photo of Olson, saying she had accompanied a man who bought sections of pipe that could have been used to make the bombs. That witness is dead. Another bit of evidence was a fingerprint matching Olson's that was found on the inside of a locked closet door in a San Francisco apartment that Olson allegedly shared with Bill and Emily Harris. FBI agents said they found bomb-making materials in that closet. An LAPD bomb expert told the grand jury he believed that the same person built the bombs in question and a partial bomb found in the closet. The expert is also dead.

And then there are the inconsistencies. In November 1999 retired L.A. police officer James Bryan came forward to identify Olson as the woman who was with two men near the Hollywood pancake house where a bomb was planted under his parked car. Olson's defense team has questioned Bryan's credibility, saying that he made no mention of Olson in his original statements or before the grand jury. (Bryan has filed a civil action against Olson, claiming that the bombing attempt traumatized him, leading to a permanent disability.)

But despite the apparent scarcity of evidence, the judge has ruled that all of the SLA's alleged crimes--even those that aren't associated with Olson--can come into evidence to prove Olson's involvement in the conspiracy, a decision the California State Appeals Court upheld. "It's an outrageous decision," Chapman declares. "No one alleges she had anything to do with these crimes. We feel the prosecution is doing this because the real case they have against her is circumstantial and could never be proved."

Of course, there is another side to the argument. Outgoing L.A. District Attorney Gil Garcetti (under whose tenure the county has suffered numerous high-profile losses, including the O.J. Simpson acquittal) broke Ideman's gag order on the case this spring, when he, as quoted in the Los Angeles Times, commented in a radio interview, "This is, we believe, a person who attempted to kill police officers....There has to be a just punishment....I don't think there's any police officer that would forget it, and certainly we can't forget it. I can't say, 'OK, you escaped for 20 years. Now it's a freebie.'"

In her autobiography, Hearst describes her terror of the SLA, whose members gave her a choice: Join them or be executed. She describes Soliah as eager to join the cause after the L.A. shootout. "She was ready and willing to go underground with the SLA and take part in any actions that were planned," Hearst writes. When the surviving members of the SLA turned to Soliah for help, Hearst alleges, she offered them money, helped get them transportation out of California, and later participated in the armed robbery of a bank, during which a patron was killed.

Olson's lawyers dispute Hearst's account, calling it further circumstantial evidence they will disprove at trial. "We have an absolutely innocent client," Chapman says. "I remain very, very confident that we are going to prevail in this trial."


7:55 p.m., November 17, 2000


Cold air blows through the World Beat Center in San Diego's delicately manicured Balboa Park. The center, shaped like a giant kettle drum, is filled with colorful murals, hieroglyphics, reggae music, maps of Africa, and portraits of Malcolm X--seemingly out of place in the center of affluent, shiny San Diego. Tonight, people have come to hear Sara Jane Olson.

Two of Olson's longtime friends, Mary Sutton and Barbara Nimis, are setting up a table of wares they are selling to raise money for Olson's defense. They have been in California nearly a week and drove down from Los Angeles this afternoon; traffic was terrible, so a three-hour drive took more than five hours. They laid out T-shirts, bumper stickers, posters, and copies of the cookbook Serving Time: America's Most Wanted Recipes, which the committee compiled last year as a tongue-in-cheek way to raise awareness about the cause. They stack buttons: "Free Sara," "Jail the real criminals: the LAPD," "DIVE$T from the U.S. Prison Industrial Complex." Olson is outside in the car, going over her speech. She writes her public statements by hand on a legal pad, making sure she says nothing that might hurt her at trial.  

When she comes in, a look of enchantment crosses her face as she views the space. She is greeted by Janice Jordan, head of the San Diego chapter of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, which organized the event. Olson sits at the table, sipping from a bottle of club soda as first Jordan, and then two local speakers, address the 40 or so people who've gathered. Before Olson speaks, Jordan suggests a break and encourages everyone to have a brownie.

Mary Sutton says a few words of introduction and outlines the wares available for purchase. Sutton, who plans to relocate to California for the duration of Olson's trial, has known Olson for more than 20 years; the two first met working in a Twin Cities antiapartheid group in the late 1970s.

The friends who have come out to support Olson reveal the chord she strikes in people. Overwhelmingly, the people who come out to see her in California--and the people who form the core of her defense committee in the Twin Cities--are women. Olson is 53; some of her most loyal followers are a decade younger, while others are in their 60s and 70s. The link between them all is a passion for activism and feminism. Some of the older generation were leaders in the protest movements of the Sixties and Seventies; the younger ones came of age during those turbulent times.

Olson is relieved by the outpouring of support. "A lot of them are people of my age group, people who came up the same time I did," she says. "That was quite a period of foment in our country. It was a time when people went outside themselves a bit. They were actually trying to change the world a little. This case reminds them of this time in their lives."

Back at the World Beat Center, Sutton gives a quick summary of the case, starting with Olson's arrest in June 1999 on the 25-year-old indictment. "Since there is no evidence on this particular indictment, the judge has allowed for the whole history of the SLA to be brought into this trial," she explains. Much of the prosecution's case rests on the testimony of Patty Hearst; she was convicted in an SLA bank robbery herself, though her sentence was commuted. The other evidence, Sutton says, is the statement by LAPD Officer James Bryan that he saw Olson at the crime scene. "Now he says 25 years later, yes, it was Sara Olson he saw, with evil in her eyes," Sutton emphasizes. The audience chuckles.

Olson tells the crowd that she has taken up the cause of reforming the prison system, especially on behalf of incarcerated women. "I've been an activist for all my adult life," she says. "And the prison industrial complex? That is, after all, the intended destination for me by the district attorney of Los Angeles." She explains that prisons have become big business, making it necessary to put bodies in them. "A new civil-rights movement is needed in this state and across the country to stop this high rate of incarceration."

There is a brief question-and-answer period. Members of the audience express interest in coming to the trial. "Do try to come," Olson says, adding that the trial will be an attempt by prosecutors to punish her for the SLA's crimes because they can't charge those who were killed in the L.A. shootout. "This really is a retrial of the Sixties and Seventies. For personal and political reasons, they want to try cases that were never indicted because the people who could be indicted were dead."

The audience is curious about the case. What kind of evidence is there? Is this an attempt by the government to dissuade young people from protesting? Olson isn't in a position to reply. But she does have a warning. "However truly culpable you may or may not be, it may come back to haunt you," she muses. "It may come back as
a nightmare."


3:00 p.m., November 18, 2000


The back patio is pungent with sage and jasmine on this Saturday afternoon at Hadassa Gilbert's home in Beverly Glen. Quaint houses with small backyards are perched on a steep hill just north of Sunset Boulevard. Inside, a handful of people, mostly women, snack on pastry puffs filled with duck sausage, sipping zinfandel or chardonnay. They're waiting for Olson.

She arrives, all smiles, with Sutton and Nimis, who tote the cookbooks and posters, the buttons and T-shirts. Olson carries her willowy frame with a poise that evinces her years as an amateur thespian. She offers her supporters a smile, a handshake, or a hug that shows genuine gratitude, as well as the caution of someone who has had notoriety suddenly thrust upon her.

Here, in a less formal setting, with a smaller group of people, Olson seems a bit more at ease than she did yesterday. She pours herself a glass of wine, samples a bit of the puff pastry, snacks on a petite éclair. The gathering is something like a socially progressive Tupperware party. Guests pull chairs into the living room, some sit on the floor, and Gilbert summarizes Olson's case. "The judge has decided that someone has to be punished, and he has decided that Sara is it," she begins. "There's no credible evidence against Sara. There's not even, as far as I can tell, any credible evidence against the SLA." Gilbert goes on to explain that Olson had a good friend who was associated with the SLA and was killed in the firebombing of the "safe house."

"I think all of us would have gotten upset to know a friend of ours died that way. After that there was a rally. At the rally, Sara denounced the LAPD," Gilbert continues. "You cannot be prosecuted for what you said or who you associated with." Then she offers a glimpse into Friday's court hearing. "This police officer stood there with his gun and said he and his family were terrorized," Gilbert exclaims. Olson, sitting next to her, points her hands at her svelte figure. "By me!" she says, eliciting laughs.

Eventually, Sutton and Olson show off some of the items they have for sale. Many in the crowd snap open their checkbooks. Sutton and Olson implore people to take petitions to circulate. They suggest purchasing a videotape the committee made of a forum on the case back in February; perhaps some of the guests today would like to show the tape in their own homes and collect checks for the cause.

The guests here seem to feel a close connection to Olson, just as her longtime friends in the Twin Cities do. Ending apartheid and bolstering women's rights were the causes that brought her close to many of the members of the defense committee, the supporters who fly out to California for these fundraising tours and court hearings. But others, like Gilbert, first learned of Olson through the news accounts of her arrest 18 months ago.

"I read about it in the papers," Gilbert explains. "I just wanted to get involved." At 63, Gilbert is a small, spry woman who speaks in excited tones. "It was so unjust," she says, her eyes bulging a bit as she shakes her head. "It just outraged me! It's just such an abuse of power!" A retired lawyer, she grew up in a small New Jersey town in an activist family of union organizers. "Most people were Jewish and left-wing socialists," she says. "It was a big shock when I learned what the real world was like." Gilbert, like many of the women here, was politically active for years, until the mid-Seventies, when, as she puts it, she got fed up. "I thought the Sixties were the threshold of something great. But that was as good as it's gonna get. It's all been downhill since then." After that, she avoided political causes--until she heard about Olson. "This thing about Sara absolutely struck me. I just couldn't not get involved."

Carol Smith has also been a linchpin of Olson's defense efforts in California. "These horrible charges were brought in our backyard. We here in L.A. had the responsibility to do something about it," says Smith, 67, a lawyer who has spent her career working for human rights. Support for Olson is growing in California, though slowly, Smith says. The people most interested are current activists and those of Smith's generation who were a part of protest movements against everything from McCarthyism to the Vietnam War. "People understood more what drives people to take stands," she says. "The population was much more open to challenge, to raising questions. Since then we've become a much more law-and-order society."

Much has changed in America since those decades of activism. There have also been changes in the California legal system, although those changes aren't likely to affect this case, according to Loyola law professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor. "The actual trial she sees is going to look a lot like the trial she would have seen 25 years ago," Levenson explains. "The question is, What is the mood?" And that, Levenson continues, may have more to do with such subtleties as perception than with evidence and legal argument.  

"The views by the public of the FBI and police have changed. Twenty-five years ago if the FBI said something, we all bowed our heads and said amen. Obviously, today that's not true," Levenson says. "What constitutes Los Angeles juries has changed demographically. If her case is tried in downtown, she won't be facing all white, middle-aged men." Instead, the jury is likely to be made up of minorities. "It raises the question of how much they'll identify with her and her life," she continues. But at the same time, blacks, Asians, and Latinos may be more skeptical of authorities.

In Los Angeles "this case is not very much on the radar screen," Levenson says. Even as Olson's November hearing was taking place, the DA's office had gotten its first convictions of police officers in the Rampart scandal, in which L.A. police officers were charged with making up evidence and framing gang members. "A 25-year-old attempted-murder case where no one was actually harmed doesn't seem all that important."

The question remains, will jurors be likely to view Olson and the SLA in the context of the era? Or will they be too far removed to even understand it? Levenson herself says she recalls the L.A. firebombing of the SLA, and she even went to Patty Hearst's trial out of curiosity. "There are some images that are seared in the public mind," she posits. But at the same time, "you're going to have jury members that weren't even alive then. But for those who were alive, the term SLA conjures up visions of everything from urban terrorism to victims of police fascism and brutality."

For that reason, the selection of jurors will likely make or break the case. "Jury selection is critical," Levenson opines. "Jurors have a fairly exacting standard of evidence. They don't go in assuming the person is guilty. O.J. got a pretty high presumption of innocence. The same may be true for a housewife. Innuendo isn't going to do it. They'll need some pretty direct evidence."

"I have a lot of faith in the jury," Olson's attorney Shawn Chapman agrees. "The jury really is able to ferret out what is not important and get to what is important."


4:05 p.m., November 19, 2000


A copy of Serving Time is on display in the front window of the Midnight Special bookstore in Santa Monica. The store, decorated with posters criticizing the LAPD and supporting the Free Mumia! campaign, stands out on this promenade, peppered mainly with dime-a-dozen stores like the Gap. At the back of the store, a few people are already seated on folding chairs.

There's some confusion. Olson and her entourage have not arrived. Chapman is there, saying she thought the book signing started at 3:00 p.m. One of the people milling around says he thought he heard 5:00 p.m. A clerk says it was supposed to be 4:00 p.m. The debate continues for a few minutes, until finally Olson, Sutton, and Nimis arrive.

This is the last scheduled event of a long week for the group. Tomorrow they'll head back to Minnesota. As they've done so many times during the past days, Sutton and Nimis spread out T-shirts and buttons and posters for display. A ring of women assembles as Olson chats with Chapman and other lawyers working on the defense team. The group of women huddles in the back, chattering about the recipes in Olson's cookbook. "Have you really made the artichoke dip?" someone asks, sparking a spirited debate about whether to use fresh or canned artichokes.

Olson gets up to address the 20 or so people in the audience. Once again, she reads carefully from her notes. Again, her acting experience is apparent; she makes eye contact with the audience and projects her voice all the way to the back row. She explains how the police officer said he was terrorized by her in the courtroom Friday.

"Terrorism," she declares. "It's a word bandied about in the courtroom and in today's media, much the way communism was in the Sixties. The judge kept calling Hall the victim. Officer Hall is big. He walked to the podium red-faced and angry. I'd never seen Officer Hall in my life, and let me tell you he is a truly terrifying spectacle. The only life in that courtroom that's threatened is mine.  

"I'm in trouble. All, I guess, for revenge. Revenge for something that never happened." It's the police, she adds, who are trying to put to rest any questions about their own tactics against the SLA so many years ago. "Six people barbecued and a neighborhood terrorized is enough of an incentive for the police to set the record straight."

Afterward, Olson autographs cookbooks. One woman encourages her to keep up the fight: "I wish you all a lot of courage in this terrible system."


7:00 p.m., November 29, 2000


It is eerily quiet this Wednesday evening at the Amazon Bookstore in south Minneapolis. Rows of empty chairs wait in the back of the shop, where Olson will soon speak. Mary Sutton and Barb Nimis are already there, looking rested after their whirlwind California trip. Also present are Mary Lynch and Mary Ellen Kaluza, other core members of Olson's defense committee. A few others, most of whom seem to be already acquainted with Olson's crew, mill about getting the scoop on the trip.

Olson walks in from the cold, greeting friends as she warms up. After a few minutes, the crowd at the front of the store moves back to the rows of chairs. Many of the seats remain empty, and most of the people in attendance seem to be already allied with the cause. Sutton notes this in her introduction, saying that she'd gotten lots of calls asking about the event. She shrugs her shoulders, wondering aloud where everyone is, but presses on.

It is much the same speech that Olson gave throughout her California tour, though she spices it up by reciting from a letter her doctor husband, Fred Peterson, recently received, encouraging him to pursue a new job in a "challenging environment": the state prisons in Stillwater, Rush City, or Moose Lake. "As far as I know, this is his first job offer from the prison industrial complex," she says with a laugh. She goes on to discuss the business of penitentiaries and the fast-growing number of incarcerated women, adding that she might be an addition to those statistics if the Los Angeles district attorney has his way.

Here, at this hometown event, it's clear that Olson has a well-developed support network. But it is equally clear that the impression the case makes on a Minnesota audience is of secondary importance now; what matters more is how the people of Los Angeles, her jury pool, see the situation.

In the end it seems that the case will rest on perceptions of Sara Olson herself: Is she a woman with the heart of a cop killer, or is she a victim of circumstance, and of the system? In her public appearances, Olson puts forth an image that matches neither extreme, as undisguised as her makeup-free face. She seems affable and intelligent, critical and cautious. She speaks eloquently about oppression. Unapologetically, she declares that the police, the FBI, the legal system, are unfair not just to her, but to so many others who don't have her good fortune of having a topnotch defense team, an ever-growing network of supporters, and enough money to stay out of jail.

"I'm stuck with this notoriety. I might as well make use of it," Olson explains. She has always worked for human-rights causes, aware that her country tends to gloss over its history with regard to race. "We just do not deal with it. We hide from it. That is woefully reflected in the prison industrial complex."

But her thoughts aren't always so cheery; the reality that she could spend the rest of her life in prison is never far from her consciousness. But at least in her adopted hometown, Olson can step out of her trial and back into her life. "I still do other activities. And I've got these kids. They don't let this trial get in their way at all," she says of her three daughters with a laugh. Recently, at the request of a friend, Olson acted in a local production of Medea. "I had to memorize my lines. I was glad I could focus on that."

And so Olson continues on the path through the courts--a journey whose outcome continues to be fraught with delays. Her identity varies, depending on who is looking at her. To prosecutors, she is a criminal. To activists, a hero. To supporters, a friend. Her future looms, uncertain, as she waits for a jury to select from these imposed roles. "I worry about it, of course," she says, her normally sonorous voice falling to a muted whisper. "I'm realistic."  


News intern Natasha Uspensky contributed research for this story.

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