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What happened to the concept of forgiveness in the Sara Jane Olson case?

Sara Jane Olson
REUTERS/Jim Ruymen
Sara Jane Olson, shown during her 2002 sentencing hearing

Don’t send Sara Jane Olson back to Minnesota! That statement has made dandy political theater, garnering a number of headlines for Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other state Republicans.

But it’s been a little weird, had no perceivable impact on events and, some say, completely sidestepped the whole issue of forgiveness. 

This morning, the California Department of Corrections released the 62-year-old Olson from prison, announcing that she would be sent to Minnesota to serve one year on parole.

She has spent the past seven years in prison for her part in a 1975 Sacramento bank robbery that led to the death of a woman and also for her attempt to place explosives on Los Angeles police cars. During those turbulent times in the nation, she was a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

Olson case touches on range of sensitive issues
Depending on your point of view, this whole case has touched on grandstanding, vengeance, a support for law and order, and forgiveness.

But start with this:  Sending released prisoners back to their home states to serve out the parole portion of sentences happens all the time. But those cases seldom — if ever — make headlines.

The Olson case did become headline material because first the Los Angeles and St. Paul police unions and then Republican political leaders grabbed hold of it and asked California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to require Kathleen  Soliah (Olson’s birth name) to serve her parole in the state where she committed the crimes.

On Monday, Pawlenty sent a letter to Schwarzenegger asking him to intervene. The California governor, through his spokesman, said he’d let his state’s department of corrections handle things.

Sara Jane Olson booking photo
Booking photo

It was Rep. Laura Brod, R-New Prague, who got the political ball rolling Monday when she asked the Minnesota Legislature to go on record opposing Olson’s return. Her efforts were blocked by procedural votes.

Was this simply a grab for media attention? After all, even Brod admits that Olson presents little risk to the public on her return to the St. Paul neighborhood where she lived for 20 years with her husband and now-grown children.

Is there no room for forgiveness now that Olson has served her debt to society?

“Forgiveness is a separate issue from where she serves her time,” said Brod. ” … This case is different because it involves domestic terrorism and threats to law enforcement. Minnesota is not her home. Minnesota is where she hid from justice.”

As for the risk she poses, Brod said, “This isn’t about risk. This is about asking fellow lawmakers to stand up for law enforcement.”

Forgiveness vs. retribution?
Sen. Gary Kubly, DFL-Granite Falls, is the one legislator who did not duck the challenge posed by Brod and Pawlenty. He is a Lutheran pastor, and he believes forgiveness must be a consideration for all of us. What he heard when he listened to Brod and the governor was a call for “retribution.”

“It pushed my hot button,” said Kubly of the efforts to prevent Olson from returning home. “She led an exemplary life here [in St. Paul] for 20 years. This is where her family is. She’s paid her debt to society … We get into making all sorts of judgments. This person deserves forgiveness. This person doesn’t deserve. The truth is, we all need it.”

Sen. Gary Kubly
Sen. Gary Kubly

Kubly admits, with a smile, to being perplexed by the theology of Pawlenty, a regular church attender.

“I felt like if his church is supporting his position on this, then, he ought to find one that doesn’t,” said Kubly.

The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the Olson parole.

Of course, at its root, this is a case about law, not theology. Under the federal Interstate Compact for Adult Offender Supervision law, Olson’s petition to serve her parole in Minnesota, with her family, is not at all unusual.

States’ parole exchanges business as usual
According to statistics from the Department of Corrections, Minnesota currently has 11 of its released parolees in California, including three who were convicted of second-degree murder in Minnesota and one convicted of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree. In other words, crimes most of us consider brutally serious.

Meantime, California has released four of its people from prison to serve out paroles in Minnesota. One of those served time for “inflicting corporal punishment,” one for a drug crime, one for driving while intoxicated and one for burglary. Serious crimes, of course. But crimes most of us would not rank with murder and rape.

Overall, Minnesota is hosting 377 people who are on parole after serving sentences in other states, while 242 people who committed crimes and served time in Minnesota are now parolees elsewhere.

When you mix in people on probation, Minnesota sends out far more people than it receives, 2,276 to 1,214.

(Probation may include jail time, but not prison time, and also include other sanctions, such as fines and community service. Parole is the term that describes supervisory conditions placed on someone who has served prison time.)

So what do these numbers show?
“They show that Sara’s case  is all political symbolism and nothing more,” said former Minnesota Human Rights Commissioner Stephen Cooper, who 10 years ago helped direct a drive to raise money for Olson’s bail. “It’s also about cheating with the rules. These people want two sets of rules. One that applies for people involved in hot-button issues. The other set of rules for everybody else.”

Of course, Olson’s case pushes all the hot buttons. When she finally was discovered by the feds and during her trial, Olson did nothing to help her own cause. She expressed no remorse. Her California attorneys did little to help her. They were more interested in making political statements than helping their client.

But she served her time. Under federal and state law, she had the right to apply for serving her parole in Minnesota. And under law, she fulfilled the requirements for coming back to Minnesota. In her case, she was eligible for parole in Minnesota, because this is where her family is located.

Ramsey County determined that she fit the requirements that mandate her parole could be served in St. Paul. (Ramsey County will provide parole services.) The state’s department of corrections concurred with Ramsey County’s investigation. And as of today, Olson is headed back to her old St. Paul neighborhood.

In announcing that Olson had been released and would be on parole in Minnesota, the California Department of Corrections added this: “Studies have shown that family-based reunification is an evidence-based indicator of protecting the public by decreasing recidivism.”

That’s why those leaving prison are often sent back to their homes, usually without any of us noticing.

Doug Grow writes about public affairs, state politics and other topics. He can be reached at dgrow [at] minnpost [dot] com.

Comments (32)

  1. Submitted by Barry Schwartze on 03/17/2009 - 01:28 pm.

    Thanks for the statistical evidence and excellent reporting.

    This whole debacle was political grandstanding at its worst. Similar to the Schiavo case, this is a matter of politicians/officials thinking they have more power than they do, and putting themselves in the middle of a situation they have no business being in.

    If Pawlenty wants to make sure that parolees from other states can’t come to Minnesota – he should ask the legislature to draft legislation to make it so. He can also expect the larger number of parolees who leave to stick around here too, when all the other states climb on board.

  2. Submitted by Henry Wolff on 03/17/2009 - 01:29 pm.

    Her crime was one designed as political theater, and now she is hung on her own petard, which I believe is true justice. You also said it yourself, she expresses no remorse. The fact she hid for so long also suggests no remorse. Without remorse, what is the point of forgiveness? It is an empty gesture completely lost on the recipient. Go read Crime & Punishment again if you want to familiarize yourself with what real guilt and redemption are like.

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 03/17/2009 - 01:37 pm.

    Forgiveness is irrelevant; it is a moral argument that each of us can answer for ourselves. As a society, the issue is a legal one. Has she served the sentence she was assigned for the crime? If the answer is yes – which it seems to be – all the rest is political posturing.

  4. Submitted by Steve Downer on 03/17/2009 - 02:16 pm.

    Forgiveness, sure, but where is the repentance?

  5. Submitted by John Westrick on 03/17/2009 - 02:17 pm.

    The writer is correct that the concept of forgiveness was eluded here, but that is probably because the acts for which Ms. Olson was convicted seem to strike at our post-9/11 society. However, it all wrked out in the end in that Ms. Olson was allowed, like other parolees to be at home with her family. Contrary to the concerns of the California police union, I am sure that Ramsey County Corrections will fulfill its duty to properly supervise her. And, I am fairly sure that the old radical is gone and Ms. Olson will complete her parole and move back to constructive pursuits.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/17/2009 - 02:20 pm.

    She’s served her time for murder and terrorism; that’s all water under the bridge, it’s all good.

    Now I demand an investigation into whether she voted under her nom de fugitive.

    Nah, I’m not miffed that she committed fraud, heck she’s a Democrat; comes with the territory.

    My beef is that if she did, she most probably voted for Michael Paymar and Dick Cohen; and for *that* she should serve another ten years!

  7. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 03/17/2009 - 02:33 pm.

    This shameless pandering by Gov. Pawlenty is an embarrassment to Minnesota.

    He could take a lesson from Gov. Schwarzenegger in this particular case.

  8. Submitted by Ed Stych on 03/17/2009 - 02:39 pm.

    Soliah/Olson has served her time, and I’m more than happy to forgive her from a Christian perspective.

    What has bugged me and many people is that she hasn’t repented and she hasn’t requested forgiveness. Smugness is not one of the Fruits of the Spirit.

  9. Submitted by Max Swanson on 03/17/2009 - 02:55 pm.

    Our governor lost many points in my humble estimation when he asked the Governator to keep Sara Jane Olsen away from the land of Minnesota Nice, /CCO-land, or whatever. I’m familiar with a case, minor by most standards, where in-Minn. parole supervision has worked wonders.

    CCO: That stands for cost-cutting Olegopoly, right?

  10. Submitted by Todd Jacobson on 03/17/2009 - 03:46 pm.

    I had the opportunity to live and work in Los Angeles and environs during the 1970’s. The SLA was doing their evil during that time, and so by some definition I guess I am a victim.

    But it seems to me that the Minnesota governor and legislature have got more important things on their plates right now than where Soliah/Olson lives. And don’t they have faith in the law enforcement professionals in Minnesota who will be overseeing her parole? Let’s keep our eye on the ball.

  11. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 03/17/2009 - 04:13 pm.

    “Nah, I’m not miffed that she committed fraud, heck she’s a Democrat; comes with the territory.”

    Thomas, your point is utterly off-topic, and you just can’t seem to figure out that your habitual hyperbole doesn’t convince anyone of anything about the points you’d like to make. What it tells us about you however…

  12. Submitted by Bill Krause on 03/17/2009 - 04:33 pm.

    How can Sen Kubly say that Soliah “led an exemplary life here [in St. Paul] for 20 years”?

    She was a fugitive from justice, posing under an assumed name. There’s absolutely nothing exemplary about her life in Minnesota. Her life here was that of a criminal hiding from the law.

    Then Kubly has the audacity to question Pawlenty’s religious beliefs?

    Take heed to yourselves: If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him. — Luke 17:3

    I haven’t seen any repentance from Soliah.

  13. Submitted by dan buechler on 03/17/2009 - 05:12 pm.

    I agree with schwartze, simon and jacobson who stick with the facts which can be verified and not emotions which can only be discerned. The #1 rule of serving on a jury.

  14. Submitted by Hugh Gitlin on 03/17/2009 - 05:38 pm.

    The governor and the police unions basically closed the barn door after the cows got out.

    If they were serious about not letting Olson serve her parole in Minnesota, they should have made their arguments to the Ramsey County and Minnesota Departments of Corrections.

  15. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/17/2009 - 05:39 pm.

    Ms. Olson has fulfilled all the legal requirements placed on her by the court which had appropriate jurisdiction over her case. It seems to me we used to call people who would use a case such as this to try to score political points… “small.” These folks trying to keep her from coming home are “small”-minded, “small”-hearted, “small” in every way that counts, especially our governor who seems to continue to be the incredible shrinking man, dropping to new lows day by day.

  16. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/17/2009 - 09:50 pm.

    You do realize, Greg, that one of the biggest things that continues to fuel public anger is that Soliah has used her case for all it is worth as a political tool, don’t you?

    Wasn’t it politics, in fact, that Soliah and her accomplices used to justify the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed woman that had never harmed them in any way?

    Seems like “small” doesn’t quite cover it when you look at it from that angle, does it?

  17. Submitted by Samuel Stern on 03/17/2009 - 10:28 pm.

    I liked the reporting, Doug. I also appreciated some of the comments. I was not aware that Olson had failed to repent or show any remorse. However, repentance is not a requirement for parole. Serving your prison term in accordance with relevant guidelines IS the requirement and Olson completed that obligation. She might have been a fugitive while in St. Paul, but she treated it as a “do over” and lived a lifestyle that was admired until her deception was uncovered. At this point, the only question is why not allow her in Minnesota? Her family is here. Many friends are here. We always encourage offenders to find sources of support after incarceration that will tend to prevent future misconduct. It makes no sense to keep her from her family or friends. It makes no sense to punish the children by continuing to separate them from their mother. Lets move on to more serious concerns that really matter.

  18. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 03/18/2009 - 08:44 am.

    Individuals may forgive or reject Soliah as some form of acceptance or rejection of her activities or future citizenship in Minnesota.

    But is Pawlenty’s opinion sans forgiveness…is it his role as governor or religious fundamentalist guru…to execute, demand his opinion be accepted public opinion as to whether Soliah be returned to the state?

    Probably, whatever one’s personal opinion, what anyone can do at this point is Not to read her book -which will surely follow – or attend her future book tours or build even a negative following of her future activities, thus supporting her rise to unacceptable celeb success in the floodlights of notoriety and attendant economic blowback in the marketplace as the result of her past activities.

  19. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 03/18/2009 - 09:33 am.

    final footnote:…or what worries me more is that a year or so from now down the pike aways, Soliah will take up religion as public theatre as a born-again, saved soul and seguentially or in-tandem, be washed in the blood of political ambition and become another fundamentalist, authoritarian religious zealot…by running for some powerful position on the Republican ticket; born again indeed, cleansing her soul of past misdeeds…”Of salvation I am certain, I was saved by Brother Burton…” or whomever.

    I can almost hear the plot thickening…”Move over Pawlenty. If he can do it so can I”…strong egos think that way ya know, so whose worried about a little forgiveness?

  20. Submitted by Ann Spencer on 03/18/2009 - 09:45 am.

    The furor over Sara Jane Olson is another sign that we’re still fighting the cultural wars of the 1960’s. To some, the 60’s were a turbulent period of social change that, despite relatively rare violent extremists like the Symbionese Liberation Army, had positive results on the whole: civil rights, improvements in the status of women, and a healthy skepticism about the need for U.S. military intervention. To others, the 60’s planted the seeds of everything they deplore: “me first”-ism, sexual permissiveness, threats to the traditional family and lack of patriotism. To the latter group, Sara Jane Olson is the living symbol of the worst excesses of the era.

    Take as a given that everyone abhors the actions of Olson/Soliah when she belonged to the SLA. Beyond that, is she someone who did awful things many years ago but has paid her debt to society and deserves a second chance? Or is she an unrepentant terrorist who deserves the scorn of all decent people and can never redeem herself?

    The larger question is why we insist on wallowing in a decade that is forty years past. We need to move on if we’re going to deal with the daunting issues that face us in the present.

  21. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 03/18/2009 - 09:57 am.

    Yes, Thomas, it still seems “small” in the overall scheme of thins. I once lived in a community where no one ever forgave the mistakes of youth committed by any and all the youngsters growing up in that community. No matter what amazing and wonderful things a person went on to do with the rest of their life, when their name was mentioned in the place where they grew up, all you heard was that they had been caught smoking or drinking or using drugs or driving recklessly when they were in high school. It was a very small-minded place (and demographically, getting smaller, as well). As the result of these attitudes, anyone growing up there who could escape to a better life elsewhere did so. The only folks left were the ones who couldn’t escape (economically or psychologically). No doubt if we were to explore your past, you’d come out “clean as a whistle,” Thomas, but perhaps not. I based on my own experience, I believe the author of the First Letter of John was right when he said “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Once of the chief lessons of my faith is that forgiveness, especially in a case like this, is what makes society work. If we are unable to forgive others, especially when they have made amends, we soon end up alone and angry at the entire world for doing us wrong.

  22. Submitted by Eric Glenne on 03/18/2009 - 10:13 am.

    I still don’t understand why this is even an issue. After her parole, isn’t she free to come back to Minnesota anyway? Are they simply fighting to postpone the inevitable?

    I personally run in social circles that intersect with some of hers and there is a small but real chance I might end up meeting her one day. How I deal with that is my personal matter and it has nothing to do with forgiveness because she didn’t do anything to me personally. It WILL however involve a complex, difficult and personal moral analysis of how I deal with someone who at one time could justify taking human lives. I’m already struggling with that.

    I wonder how many don’t want her here simply because they don’t want to confront that process.

  23. Submitted by Chris Johnson on 03/18/2009 - 01:08 pm.

    I see repeated claims that she has not repented or felt remorse. Really? How many of you have lived inside her brain? Or even talked to her? The presumptuousness is astounding.

    Did she repent in prison? How would we know. We’ve heard essentially zero from her for seven years. Note that she did plead guilty — rather than being convicted after pleading not guilty. Admission of guilt is a lot closer to repenting than denial of guilt.

    I think a previous comment writer nailed it with the observation that Olson represents the decade/generation/cultural revolution that so pisses off neocons and right-wing Republicans. She’s a symbol of something that sticks in their craw. So they want to take out on Olson all of their frustration, anger, dissatisfaction and impotence with how the world is now. How utterly small of them, indeed.

  24. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 03/18/2009 - 01:19 pm.

    “No doubt if we were to explore your past, you’d come out “clean as a whistle,” Thomas, but perhaps not.”


    No perhaps about it; definitely not. I’m not expecting anyone’s forgiveness or approval, but then again I’m not suggesting that anything I’ve done is excusable or laudable, as Soliah has.

    I guess you’re just a better human being than I am.

  25. Submitted by Bill Krause on 03/18/2009 - 03:01 pm.

    “Note that she did plead guilty -”

    No, she plead guilty, and then withdrew her plea

    Here is her initial plea of guilty to the explosives charge.

    “”I want to make it clear, Your Honor, that I did not make that bomb. I did not possess that bomb. I did not plant that bomb. But under the concept of aiding and abetting, I plead guilty.”

    and then her withdrawal of her guilty plea

    “I realize I cannot plead guilty when I know I am not. … Cowardice prevented me from doing what I knew I should: Throw caution aside and move forward to trial. … I am not second-guessing my decision as much as I have found the courage to take what I know is the honest course. Please, Judge Fidler, grant my request to go to trial.”

    The judge refused her withdrawal request.

  26. Submitted by Robin Rainford on 03/18/2009 - 03:48 pm.

    I’m in tune with the Mpls Tribune letter writer who has a paroled sex offender moving into her neighborhood and offered “Trade You!”

    So what do we as a society get for the expense of seven years of prison for Olson? Not safety, since there’s no risk of recividism. Not reform, since she already did that on her own. Not even satisfaction apparently, because she failed to repent publicly and the punishment is never enough.

    We need to think of a smarter response than warehousing people.

  27. Submitted by Chris Johnson on 03/18/2009 - 03:52 pm.

    Hey, Bill Krause, can you also give us the exact words of her plea to the bank robbery shooting charge? My reading says she also plead guilty to that charge as well. Moreover, her case did not go to trial, which it would have if she plead not guilty. Name your sources.

    Something else that really gets the knee-jerk, extra-legal retribution crowd going is guilt and shame. Guilty that they were not the model citizens Sara Jane Olson was in St. Paul before her arrest. Shame that someone who made such large mistakes in her youth could surpass them in doing good. Olson read newspapers to the blind, volunteered in soup kitchens and aided victims of torture before her arrest.

    I’d bet most of her critics talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.

  28. Submitted by Bill Krause on 03/18/2009 - 04:05 pm.


    Have you lived inside my brain? Or even talked to me? Your presumptuousness is astounding.

    “Olson read newspapers to the blind,”

    Oh my God!, that was a great disguise while hiding from the law.

  29. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/18/2009 - 06:13 pm.

    Some say there are two kinds of people in the world. One group considers all that all humans are born basically evil and must be rigorously and rigidly controlled from above to prevent them from acting out their evilness. The other considers that each of us is born basically good, and that kind and loving care will allow that goodness to blossom. (Not that discipline AND forgiveness are never required, because none of us is perfect.)

  30. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/18/2009 - 09:17 pm.

    Wow ! All these thoughts and feelings and I didn’t have to pay 50cents at a green box. I seriously think there needs to be a monument to all of those who struggled to implement social change in this society of ours.

  31. Submitted by Gary Lundborg on 03/19/2009 - 04:58 am.

    The question of where terrorists should be sent after they have been tried and served time is a very timely topic.
    There are suspected terrorists in jails all over the world who have not been charged, tried or convicted. Some for up to 7 years. They cannot be released because governments do not want to take them.
    Now we have a case of a convicted terrorist who eluded capture for many years, given a minimal sentence and what to do with her now.
    In the previously mentioned cases, the decision is to keep them locked up until somebody will take them. In this case it looks like the terrorist calls the shots.
    I wonder, is fact that she is Christian and white have anything to do with the different opinions.

  32. Submitted by Greg Lang on 03/19/2009 - 09:39 pm.

    As I recall, after her 1999 arrest someone looked up the voting records and she voted at least twice as “Sara Jane Olson”. It made the news. The Minnesota law at the time stated that person (woman?) could vote using their “married name”. The legislature amended the law to “legal name”.

    Also, there was one, perhaps two speeding tickets but no other local criminal activity. She also used a friends name and passport for her families two years in Zimbabwe that occurred when Patricia Hearst’s book came out.

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