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Backers Say Olson Wants to Withdraw Plea, Face Trial

Courts: Alleged SLA member has filed a motion, they say, but prosecutors are unaware of it.

November 14, 2001|STEVE BERRY and HENRY WEINSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Leaders of the Sara Jane Olson Defense Fund said Tuesday that the accused Symbionese Liberation Army member is seeking to withdraw her guilty plea and go to trial on charges that she attempted to bomb two LAPD cars in 1975.

Mary Sutton, head of the fund, said Olson told her that a withdrawal motion was filed under seal in Los Angeles Superior Court on Tuesday. Sutton said Olson told her about the motion Tuesday afternoon because word of it had already leaked out to the media.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday November 16, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Olson plea--A story in the California section Wednesday reported that Hadassa Gilbert, a member of the Sara Jane Olson Defense Fund, said Olson was seething over a recent court hearing called by the judge in her bomb plot case. Gilbert says she was expressing her own opinion about what she believed Olson's feelings were concerning the hearing.

"I think she did it [ask for the withdrawal], because she gave the plea under a lot of pressure, and she doesn't feel good about it," said Sutton, a longtime friend and neighbor of Olson's.

Lawyers for Olson did not return calls seeking comment.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Mike Latin said late Tuesday that prosecutors know nothing about a withdrawal motion and have not been notified of any new court hearing.

But "we are ready for trial," he said. "In the event the plea is withdrawn, we're ready to go and eager to let the evidence come out."

Olson, a 54-year-old Minnesota resident who was arrested in 1999 after more than 20 years on the lam, entered a surprise guilty plea to the bombing charges Oct. 31. She then walked outside the courtroom and told reporters she was innocent of the charges, stemming from her alleged activities with the radical political group best known for having kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst.

Olson told reporters she had entered her guilty plea because she feared she would not receive a fair trial as a result of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler reacted by calling an unusual hearing in which he asked her to reaffirm her plea, saying he would not allow someone to plead guilty if she was innocent. Olson again pleaded guilty and sought to explain her thinking:

"I did not make that bomb," she told Fidler in a shaking voice. "I did not possess that bomb. And I did not plant that bomb. But under the concept of aiding and abetting, I plead guilty."

Fidler proceeded to press further. "Because you are, in fact, guilty?" he asked.

"Yes," Olson responded after a brief pause.

Fidler then accepted the plea.

Olson, due to be sentenced on Dec. 7 to 20 years to life in state prison, could serve anywhere from five years to life, depending on decisions made by the state Board of Prison Terms.

Legal experts said Tuesday that Olson may have a difficult time convincing the judge that she should go on trial.

"Withdrawing a plea is a very difficult thing to do," said Bellflower-based defense attorney Andrew M. Stein. "Buyer's remorse is not an adequate ground" for withdrawing a plea.

Stein said that a defendant usually attempts to withdraw a plea when his lawyer has done something wrong.

A classic example, Stein said, would be if the lawyer failed to tell a client charged with a sex offense that as a consequence of the plea the defendant has to permanently register as a sex offender.

Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor, agreed, saying Olson faces "an uphill battle.".

"This is not an ordinary situation," Levenson said. "Olson has pleaded guilty twice. It is hard enough to withdraw your plea when you pleaded guilty once. One would expect it to be harder when you have pleaded guilty twice.

"The whole point of Judge Fidler bringing her back was to try to ensure that down the road she would not withdraw her plea," Levenson said.

On the other hand, Levenson said, the law gives a judge broad discretion in deciding whether to grant such a motion.

Under the California Penal Code, Levenson said, a defendant has to demonstrate "good cause" to withdraw a plea by "clear and convincing evidence."

Among the possible factors are that the plea was induced by ineffective representation, an improper inducement, a failure to advise the defendant of the consequences of the plea, a violation of the terms of a negotiated plea or an attempt to impose an illegal sentence.

Levenson said the most common grounds--bad legal advice or involuntariness--"do not seem to apply to Olson. She has had an army of lawyers."

Santa Monica-based defense attorney Gigi Gordon said she once convinced a judge to accept a plea withdrawal from a defendant who had not been informed that the pimping and pandering charge he pleaded guilty to carried a mandatory prison sentence.

Normally, Gordon said, a plea can be withdrawn only if it was not knowingly, intelligently or voluntarily made. It is almost impossible, she said, "to have involuntariness without showing that you had an incompetent lawyer."

Olson's supporters said Tuesday she has never been comfortable with the idea of pleading guilty.

Hadassa Gilbert, a retired lawyer and defense fund member, said Olson "just couldn't live with having admitted guilt. She felt she betrayed herself and the people who believed in her."

Moreover, Gilbert and others said, Olson is seething over the hearing that Fidler called to ask about her out-of-court comments.

Sutton said Olson was also concerned by comments that Latin made last week about future actions by the state Board of Prison Terms.

"Michael Latin sounds like he's going to go after her further," Sutton said.

Latin has said that Olson's apparent lack of remorse for her 1975 actions "would not bode well for her before the parole board and that we would present that to the board."

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