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Law of the Bungle 

Sara Jane Olson's attorney would like to say a few words about how her San Francisco co-counsel handled the high-profile case

Wednesday, Dec 26 2001
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On Dec. 3, the reputation of legendary San Francisco lawyer J. Tony Serra crumbled in full view of the national media when the renowned defense attorney failed to appear in a Los Angeles courtroom, leaving his client, Sara Jane Olson, in the lurch. Serra had promised to show up and testify that he had psychologically coerced Olson into pleading guilty to attempting to commit murder by exploding pipe bombs (which failed to detonate) under two Los Angeles Police Department cars in August 1975.

As a courtroom full of police officers and their families waited for Serra to stride onstage to explain why he browbeat his supposedly innocent client, Serra's co-counsel, Shawn Chapman, started to realize that she was about to experience the worst day of her professional life. The bad day turned excruciating when Superior Court Judge Larry Paul Fidler read out loud to the crowded courtroom a letter that Serra had just faxed to him from his office in San Francisco.

"Dear Judge Fidler: I apologize profusely for not making the appearance today; but I attribute it to my karma, not to my volition." Serra claimed that he was held up by security lines at the Oakland airport and "in a state of mind of dank frustration, I went home and went back to bed."

The press had a field day. Olson, allegedly a member of the terrorist Symbionese Liberation Army, and her two high-profile lawyers came across as total nitwits. Born Kathleen Soliah, Olson was captured in 1999 in Minnesota after 24 years on the lam, and from the get-go she has had rotten luck with attorneys. Her first set of lawyers, Stuart Hanlon of San Francisco and Susan Jordan of Oakland, dumped the case, citing personal reasons. Because Olson by that time could no longer afford an attorney, the court appointed Chapman, television-famous for assisting in the defense of O.J. Simpson during his murder trial. Serra, whose stellar career as a hotshot defender was featured in the 1988 film True Believer, also came on board, working free of charge on the case, which was receiving oodles of international media attention.

In an interview last week, Chapman said that allowing Serra, 67, to join the defense team "was a huge mistake."

"We now realize you get what you pay for," Chapman noted ruefully. "With a pro bono lawyer you have no leverage."

The Olson case suffered from repeated delays, brought about by the prosecution's belated discovery of evidence gathered by the FBI a quarter-century ago. In an interview last fall, Serra said he was hurting financially because of the constant delays. Court records show that after Sept. 11, Serra began pressuring Olson to plead guilty to reduced charges in return for a reduced sentence. Olson, 54, has always maintained that, although she was an active supporter of the SLA, she did not plant the bombs in Los Angeles, which is what she was indicted for in absentia by a grand jury in 1976.

According to Chapman, in an unusual move, Serra, who has an aversion to computers, sent an e-mail to Olson after Sept. 11. "He does not ordinarily use e-mail, so we were concerned that he was very serious. He said, "My top quality is optimism and I am no longer feeling optimistic. I implore you to consider making a plea bargain.'" (Serra did not return repeated telephone calls requesting comment.)

Chapman met several times with prosecutors from the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office and negotiated a deal. (Chapman says she was creating a second option for Olson besides going to trial; it was not her job to recommend which option Olson should choose.) Under the law as it existed when Olson allegedly committed her crimes, the judge would be expected to sentence her to two consecutive 10-year-to-life terms. Because the case is so ancient, and because California law was rewritten not long after Olson's indictment in a way that lessened the penalties for the felonies she has pled guilty to, she would be practically guaranteed to serve no more than two years and seven months. The agreement would allow her to serve her time in a Minnesota state prison, close to her family. Olson still held out some hope, however, that a jury would exonerate her. At that point, Serra flew to Los Angeles and, Chapman says, "screamed at Sara in front of her family that she would be fucking insane to not take the deal. He was grand, persuasive, overpowering, insistent, cursing, demanding, telling her she cannot win a trial in a climate of surging patriotism."

On Halloween, Olson caved in and signed the plea agreement, which stated, "She is pleading guilty because she is in truth and in fact guilty." Prosecutor Eleanor Hunter told Judge Fidler in court that she expected Olson to serve life in prison. Chapman says she was shocked, that Hunter had promised a much lesser penalty. Outside the courtroom, Olson told the press that she was innocent and had pled guilty out of expedience. Fidler was incensed and ordered Olson to return on Nov. 6 and explain her statement. Chapman went into temporary seclusion, depressed and upset that the plea bargain might result in life imprisonment for her client. (According to San Francisco Assistant District Attorney Linda Klee and other legal experts, Chapman had nothing to worry about. Although the judge must impose a sentence of 20 years to life, Klee says, the post-1977 law does not allow Olson to serve more than two years and seven months, provided she behaves nicely and is paroled.)

When Olson went before the judge a second time, she got cold feet again. Outside the courtroom, she told her lawyers she would not plead guilty because she is innocent. "Tony demanded and screamed and pounded the table and convinced her or coerced her to say what was needed," Chapman recalls. "It was indescribably painful."

Three days later, Olson read an interview that Serra had given to Reuters in which he said, "[I] never wanted Olson to plead guilty but gave in to others who insisted that the Sept. 11 attacks would make jurors eager to convict a radical fugitive. ... I don't like ever pleading anyone, and this was a defensible case. ... If she gets life I think I'll commit suicide, for Christ's sake."

Olson freaked out. Chapman says her client called Serra, who admitted to having second thoughts, according to Olson. At Olson's behest, Chapman says, Serra wrote a declaration under penalty of perjury that said, "I, in part, take responsibility for creating conditions in her mind that amounted to psychological duress, in regard to pleading guilty." Olson then appealed to Judge Fidler to allow her to withdraw the guilty plea, swearing that "cowardice prevented me from doing what I knew I should: throw caution aside and move forward to trial." She felt confident that a jury would find her innocent because "I am represented by two brilliant attorneys."

Serra promised to show up in court on Dec. 3 and submit to cross-examination on his sworn statement. With increasing terror, Chapman and Olson waited for him on the appointed day in the cafeteria of the courthouse -- in vain. When Serra failed to appear, the angry judge allowed the prosecution to put on a PowerPoint demonstration of the evidence they had marshaled against Olson. He then ordered Chapman to mount an abbreviated version of Olson's defense argument, which she did.

During Chapman's presentation, Serra faxed his "karma" letter to Fidler, and the judge instantly ruled against Olson's motion to withdraw her guilty plea. He set Jan. 18 as the date for sentencing.

Chapman doubts that her client will appeal the judge's decision. The attorney is resigned to the near certainty that Olson will do hard time. "I feel bad for Sara," Chapman says. "Tony was a huge disappointment. People have speculated that Tony didn't show up in court as a tactic to make her accept the guilty plea in her own best interest. I do not think so, although I have not talked to him since he didn't show up. We do not even know if he is still working on the case. The whole thing makes me feel unclean."

Chapman says she will never abandon Olson and will work for free if necessary. "I am interested in restoring her image," Chapman asserts. "Sara looks wishy-washy and flaky, but if you understand the back story it all makes sense."

About The Author

Peter Byrne

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