The Pacific Research Institute
(PRI promotes individual freedom and personal responsibility as the cornerstones of a civil society, best achieved through a free-market economy, limited government, and private initiative. PRI researches and analyzes critical issues facing California and the nation, and crafts strategies for policy reform.)
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif. -- Capital crimes, cont'd
by K. Lloyd Billingsley
Last year, when the FBI found Symbionese Liberation Army soldier Kathleen Soliah living as Sarah Jane Olson, a doctor's wife in Minnesota, this column suggested the authorities look into her role in a robbery and murder here in 1975. They did.
The SLA was a murderous left-wing gang, one of several in the Bay Area. It was so bad during the 1970s that even Dianne Feinstein was packing a gun after the New World Liberation Front put her on a "death warrant."
The SLA, for its part, shot and killed Marcus Foster, the first black superintendent of Oakland schools, and kidnapped Patty Hearst. When the gang needed money it robbed banks, an act it considered as political appropriation, not a common crime.
In a plea agreement here, it emerged that on April 21, 1975, Sarah Jane Olson was in the Crocker National Bank in nearby Carmichael, which she had previously denied. During the robbery, her SLA comrade Emily Montague, named Emily Harris at the time, fatally shot Myrna Opsahl, a 42-year-old mother of four who had come to deposit church funds.
Montague, who in one account dismissed the victim as just another "bourgeois pig," pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and got eight years. She will serve at least four. Bill Harris, the SLA "field marshal" who planned the robbery, got seven years and will serve at least three-and-a-half. Olson is already serving 14 years for a pipe-bomb charge in Los Angeles. She got an additional six years for the Crocker Bank robbery, as did the fourth member of the group, Michael Bortin.
These sentences are on the short side when one considers that the SLA killed an innocent woman in the course of an armed robbery. But at least the guilty will serve hard time, and they have signed agreements not to profit from book and movie deals. For the victim's family, this is better than allowing these criminals to get away with murder and live peaceful, normal lives. Bill Harris was working as, of all things, a private investigator.
They all said they were sorry, of course. Emily Montague proclaimed that she was "horrified" at the time. One notes that the sorrow hadn't prompted any of the assailants to step forward and confess any time since 1975. A final SLA fugitive, James Kilgore, is in the process of turning himself in.
Jon Opsahl, a child at the time of his mother's murder, had to plead with prosecutors to pursue this case, even though they had new evidence. There is no statute of limitations on murder and it should not require such pleading for authorities to go after people who are really terrorists. And there is no shortage of cases like this from the 1970s. In some, the evidence is not lacking but courage most definitely is.
In the world after Sept.11, where terrorists openly target all Americans, the worse message to send is that murder will go unpunished. Legislators and prosecutors should take a cue from the SLA case and get their priorities in order. Protection of life and property is the business of the state. And to better discharge that responsibility, the state should stop intruding where it has no business.
(K. Lloyd Billingsley is editorial director of the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.)