In his recent column, “What happened to the concept of forgiveness in the Sara Jane Olson case?,” MinnPosts’ Doug Grow, in just a shade over 1,000 words, not only advocates for the return of convicted felon Sara Jane Olson (née Kathleen Soliah) back to Minnesota to serve out her parole, but also trivializes the views of those critics who do not share her choice of parole locale, and suggests they have moral failings for refusing to forgive Olson/Soliah for her crimes and fugitive past.
Olson/Soliah was sentenced to 14 years in California prison in 2002 and 2003 for her roles, during her association with the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), in the placing of pipe bombs under LAPD patrol cars and for participating in a 1975 bank robbery that resulted in the death of one woman (Myrna Opsahl). After slightly more than seven years imprisonment, she asked the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to let her return to the state, community (St. Paul), and family and friends where she lived as a fugitive for 24 years. Olson/Soliah arrived back in Minnesota on parole Wednesday evening.
Grow alternately refers to those Minnesota politicians who objected to Olson/Soliah serving out her parole in Minnesota as making "dandy political theater," "grandstanding," individuals bent on "vengeance," and making a "grab for media attention." In short, in Grow’s view, Republican lawmakers (e.g. Governor Tim Pawlenty and Representative Laura Brod, R-New Prague) are making a lot of noise about nothing.
The fallacy of Grow’s argument is his conceptualization of Olson/Soliah as 'just another criminal.' Grow cites impressive statistics of violent felons from Minnesota serving parole in California as well as numerous individuals who are serving parole in Minnesota after being imprisoned in other states. From this data, Grow concludes, "Olson's petition to serve her parole in Minnesota, with her family, is not at all unusual."
Despite what Grow would have his readers believe, the Olson/Soliah case is far from usual, and there are many reasons why many Minnesota politicians, the residents of the Gopher State who they serve, and the St. Paul police union, objected to Olson/Soliah’s request to serve her parole in the Gopher State.
While the end result may be crassly characterized as 'vengeance,' there are doubtlessly a multitude of reasons why Minnesotans chose to not only withhold forgiveness from Olson/Soliah, but also hoped that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would have acceded to Pawlenty’s written request, and make life just a little more difficult for one of the state’s most notorious ex-fugitives as she serves out her parole.
For one, despite her age and gender, Olson/Soliah is an unsympathetic figure, even among felons. Those rushing to the defense of Olson/Soliah during her legal proceedings between her arrest in 1999 and her final sentence in 2003, spoke glowingly of her service to the community during her years in Minnesota. Of course, these friends had only known her after she left her life of crime behind.
While Olson/Soliah defenders attributed altruistic motives to her record of community service, Smart Politics poses the following question: if you were a fugitive from the law and did not want to get caught, what would be the smartest strategy to employ? Would you seek to make enemies and continue criminal behavior, or would you do the opposite, make friends, and settle into a seemingly normal, wholesome life?
Grow acknowledges (at the end of his article), that Olson/Soliah expressed no remorse for her crimes. Though this is not entirely accurate.
At her January 2002 explosives charge sentencing, she did offer a classic celebrity, 'If-I-offended-anyone-then-I-apologize' apology. While maintaining her innocence in one breath, Olson/Soliah stated in open court in the next, "For any mistakes that I have made, I accept responsibility for any pain I have caused. I accept responsibility and I am truly sorry."
That ‘apology’ would have seemed more heartfelt and more remorseful if the cryptic ‘mistakes’ and ‘pain’ to which she referred would have been decoded and called by its actual name – the crime of helping to plant explosives against the LAPD for which she was charged.
In fact, it was Olson/Soliah’s constant wishy-washiness in taking responsibility for her crimes that made police officer unions in both St. Paul and Los Angeles unsurprisingly in opposition to her request to serve out her parole in Minnesota.
Though she ultimately plead guilty to both charges, her plea on the explosives charge was followed by a claim that she was innocent, and an indictment of the U.S. criminal justice system – stating her guilty plea was the result of a post-9/11 climate that made it impossible for domestic terrorists to receive a fair trial (not that she was admitting to domestic terrorism).
Olson/Soliah also initially pleaded innocent to the robbery/murder charges in January 2002, only to change that plea to guilty later in the year as the prosecution lined up witnesses from the SLA to testify against her.
But there’s more.
While in prison, supporters raised bail money for Olson/Soliah by selling cookbooks under her name with the seemingly droll title: Serving Time: America's Most Wanted Recipes. One can understand why the victims of SLA attacks, the LAPD, and Gopher State residents might not be smiling at such a cleverly-titled book (Olson/Soliah was arrested in June 1999 after being profiled twice on America’s Most Wanted).
While Grow subtly excuses Olson/Soliah’s association with the SLA as occurring, “During those turbulent times in the nation,” one might think she was just a young lost soul, searching for political idealism in a disorderly world. But this was not the Summer of Love. And Olson/Soliah was not a teenager when she committed these crimes. In fact, she was not 20 years old. Or 22. Or 25. In April 1975, at the time of the deadly Crocker National Bank robbery, Olson/Soliah was more than 28 years old.
Finally, Grow’s attempt to conflate Olson/Soliah with every other ‘ordinary’ criminal that gets paroled, falls flat due to that one tricky part of her personal history – the 24 years she spent as a fugitive from justice. Olson/Soliah, you see, was able to profit during her life as a fugitive under her new identity of Sara Jane Olson. By escaping justice for 24 years, she built a family and the trust and love of her community – something she may never have enjoyed had she been captured prior to leading this double-life.
One of the reasons cited by supporters of Olson/Soliah and those attacking Republican lawmakers such as Governor Pawlenty and Representative Brod is the citation of data that states the reunification of criminals with families tends to reduce recidivism among parolees. Grow writes, "That's why those leaving prison are often sent back to their homes, usually without any of us noticing." (Again, suggesting Olson/Soliah is just your average felon).
Nor does Grow provide much balance in his article. He quotes three times as many sources who are favorable to Olson/Soliah’s return (Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, former Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Stephen Cooper, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) as those who oppose it (Rep. Laura Brod).
Senator Kubly was quoted, in fact, as saying Olson/Soliah, "Led an exemplary life here [in St. Paul] for 20 years."
Exemplary that is, aside from being a fugitive from justice and lying about her true identity to the St. Paul community.
In calling on Minnesotans to forgive Olson/Soliah, Grow’s column displays the height of arrogance in its suggestion that it is the obligation or moral duty of the State of Minnesota, its elected leaders, or its residents, to not simply exercise this power of forgiveness in the Olson/Soliah case, but to suggest they even possess the right or power to forgive her in the first instance.
For it is only the victims of Olson/Soliah’s criminal activity who truly have the power to forgive her, not warm-hearted Minnesotans or columnists like Doug Grow, and Grow made no reference in his article to the views held by the LAPD or the Opsahl family on her parole (or of any attempt by him to contact them).
For the record, one such victim’s family member, Jon Opsahl, did not offer forgiveness per se but did recently state that Olson/Soliah paid her debt to society and, "As far as I'm concerned, she can leave the state as soon as possible.”
It is not yet known if Senator Kubly greeted Olson/Soliah at the airport Wednesday evening.
Follow Smart Politics on Twitter.