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Elderly Witnesses Will Testify Before Start of Olson Trial

July 20, 2001|ANNA GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Prosecutors in the case of alleged Symbionese Liberation Army member Sara Jane Olson will be allowed to examine three elderly witnesses more than a month before the trial is scheduled to begin, a judge ruled Thursday.

Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler scheduled the testimony for early August in Sacramento Superior Court because the witnesses are ill and unable to travel to Los Angeles. Olson's defense attorneys also will examine the witnesses, who are in their 70s and 80s.

They are expected to testify Aug. 3 that they witnessed bank robberies in 1975 allegedly committed by the SLA, the revolutionary group best known for the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst. One of the robberies, in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael, ended in the shooting death of a customer.

Olson, 54, is accused of trying to kill two Los Angeles police officers in 1975 by placing bombs under two squad cars. The bombs did not explode. Her trial is set for Sept. 24 in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Hearst, expected to testify at the trial, wrote in an autobiography that Olson--then known as Kathleen Soliah--participated in the Carmichael robbery.

Prosecutors asked for permission to examine the witnesses because they may not survive long enough to testify at the trial, which has been postponed several times at the request of defense attorneys who wanted more time to prepare.

"You can't preserve their testimony after it's too late," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Michael Latin. "We'd rather preserve it now."

The defense also has faced a similar problem--witness Jack Scott died of cancer last year shortly after a previous judge in the case denied a defense request to videotape his testimony.

Fidler also ruled Thursday that the defense team would be allowed to reexamine the bomb materials from the 1975 incident, despite opposition from prosecutors who said defense attorneys already had the evidence for eight months.

During the upcoming court proceedings in Sacramento, Marceline Jones is expected to testify that she witnessed the Carmichael bank robbery and that she saw a woman, whom she has never identified, jump over the teller counter, according to court papers.

Evelyn Burns is expected to say that she saw a woman behind the teller counter.

Dorothy White is expected to testify that she saw a person--whom she has identified as Olson's then-boyfriend James Kilgore--outside another Sacramento-area bank during a robbery.

Prosecutors said they plan to present evidence that the SLA committed both bank robberies. They have said that testimony about the robberies is relevant to Olson's case because they believe the money the SLA made from the Carmichael heist helped pay for the bomb materials allegedly used by Olson. Evidence of Olson participating in the robberies could also link her to the SLA.

Olson's attorney, Shawn Chapman, said Thursday that the testimony about the Northern California bank robberies has "absolutely nothing to do" with the case against her client. Olson has never been charged in connection with the bank robberies, although the FBI and Sacramento authorities have revived investigations of the Carmichael robbery and murder.

"It's a very good example of how the prosecution is trying to bring in all sorts of irrelevant evidence that has nothing to do with the bombing in Los Angeles," Chapman said, "because they have no evidence against my client."

In its motion to study the bomb materials, the defense argued that its expert witnesses had been unable to thoroughly examine the evidence because they did not have original notes and reports from the FBI at the time. They received those reports earlier this year after returning the bomb materials to the prosecution.

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