Patty Hearst Trial: 1976

views updated

Patty Hearst Trial: 1976

Defendant: Patricia C. Hearst
Crimes Charged: Bank robbery and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony
Chief Defense Attorneys: F. Lee Bailey and J. Albert Johnson
Chief Prosecutor: James L. Browning, Jr.
Judge: Oliver J. Carter
Place: San Francisco, California
Dates of Trial: February 4-March 20, 1976
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: 7 years imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: Observers expected Patty Hearst's trial to illuminate howor ifa young woman from one of America's wealthiest families was transformed by her own kidnappers into a gun-wielding revolutionary dedicated to provoking a violent class war. Shifting public sympathies resulted in a campaign to obtain a presidential commutation of her sentence.

February 4, 1974, Patricia Hearst was a wealthy apolitical college student living with her fiancé in Berkeley, California. That night she was abducted screaming from their apartment at gunpoint, dressed in her bathrobe. Three days later her abductors released a tape in which Hearst told her parents she was being well-treated. It was accompanied by a message from "General Field Marshall-Cinque" of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA).

Before the Hearst kidnapping, little was known about the SLA, a small but violent group on the fringe of radical leftist politics. In November 1973, they killed Dr. Marcus Foster, the superintendent of schools for Oakland, California. The SLA declared that Hearst was a "prisoner of war" to be ransomed for the release of Joseph Remiro and Russell Little, who were charged with murdering Foster. "Field Marshall Cinque"an escaped convict named Donald De Freezedemanded their release. As a gesture of "good faith," the SLA demanded that the Hearst family first distribute $70 worth of food to every needy person in California.

Remiro and Little would not be released. Hearst's father, Randolph, chairman of the Hearst media empire, offered to distribute $2 million worth of food to the poor, with another $4 million to follow his daughter's safe release. The first distribution resulted in a near riot as crowds fought to get food from trucks.

Patty Becomes Tania

Two months after her abduction, Patty Hearst announced in a new tape that she had joined the SLA and taken the name "Tania." The message was accompanied by a photograph of Hearst posing with a gun before a poster of the SLA symbol, a seven-headed cobra. Her parents skeptically replied that all the tapes were made under duress.

On April 15, two bystanders were wounded during an armed robbery of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. One robber announced to the terrified customers and automatic bank cameras that she was "Tania Patricia Hearst." In a tape released a week later, she said that she had willingly taken part in the robbery.

Federal arrest warrants were issued for eight SLA members. The FBI chose to seek Hearst's capture only as a "material witness" to the holdup. Yet suspicion that she had indeed joined her captors was voiced by U.S. Attorney General William Saxbe, who declared that Hearst "was not a reluctant participant" in the robbery and was thus "a common criminal."

The Hearst family was outraged by Saxbe's comments, but the transformation of Patty Hearst from victim to outlaw in the public mind had begun. It was bolstered May 16 when she fired an automatic weapon from a van, enabling SLA members Bill and Emily Harris to escape a security guard at Mel's Sporting Goods store in Los Angeles. Teenager Tom Matthews told police that his van was then hijacked by the escaping Harrises and Hearst, who told him openly of her part in the bank holdup.

The next day Los Angeles police surrounded a small house commandeered by SLA members. As viewers watched on live television, the ensuing gun battle turned the cottage into an inferno. Patricia Hearst was not among the six bodies found when the fire expired. Three weeks later, another Hearst tape surfaced in which she spoke of her love for Willie Wolfe, one of the dead SLA members. Nothing more was heard of her for 17 months.

Captured and Arrested

On September 18, 1975, FBI agents captured Hearst in San Francisco. Instead of being freed, she was arrested for the Hibernia Bank robbery and hustled off to jail to undergo the first of many psychiatric examinations.

Hearst's parents hired F. Lee Bailey, a Boston, Massachusetts, attorney renowned for winning acquittals for the alleged "Boston Strangler" and accused wife-murderer Dr. Sam Sheppard. Bailey declared that for 20 months, Patty Hearst had been via "prisoner of war" whose actions were entirely governed by her desire to stay alive.

Hearst's trial began February 4, 1976, two years to the day after she had been kidnapped. No one disputed her presence at the Hibernia Bank heist. The jury's real task was to decide whether she had acted willingly. Bailey hoped to confine the trial to the circumstances of her kidnapping, her mistreatment by the SLA, and the robbery itself.

Prosecutor James Browning, Jr., was equally intent on establishing that Hearst's behavior before and after the holdup reflected her voluntary participation in the crime. When Browning began to question her about the "missing year"the 17 months preceding her captureBailey objected. The jury was sent from the courtroom.

Bailey argued that Hearst's claims of willful participation in the robbery were made under duress and should not be admitted. Judge Oliver Carter denied the motion to suppress the government's intended evidence, ruling that "the statements made by the defendant after the happening of the bank robbery, whether by tape recording, or oral communication, or in writing, were made voluntarily." The ruling entitled the prosecution to introduce all the tapes, testimony by Tom Matthews and Mel's Sporting Goods employees, and a confiscated manuscript known as "The Tania Interview," in which Hearst spoke of her conversion to the SLA and denied being brainwashed.

Defendant Takes the Stand

The jury returned to the courtroom. Over her private objections, Bailey put his client on the stand to counter the coming flood of damaging testimony. Hearst described her violent abduction. For nearly two months, she had been bound, blindfolded, and confined in a dark closet, where she was sexually molested by Wolfe and De Freeze. She was constantly threatened, hectored with revolutionary rhetoric, and told that her parents had abandoned her by refusing the SLA's demands. After seeing the May 16 incident on television, she accepted her captors' claims that the FBI would kill her if they discovered her in a SLA hideout.

Hearst explained that SLA member Angela Atwood had written the text of the tape in which "Tania" declared her willing participation in the robbery. Bill Harris had ordered her to tell Tom Matthews about the Hibernia robbery. The Harrises, she said, also dictated the text of the "Tania Interview," which was to have been published to raise funds for the SLA.

Bailey argued that Hearst's actions and words resulted from a constant threat of death. Prosecutor Browning pressed her to explain why she had not taken advantage of numerous chances to escape, particularly during Bill Harris' botched shoplifting attempt at Mel's. She replied that she feared both the SLA and the FBI. Covering the Harrises' escape was a "reflex action" triggered by incessant drilling and the SLA's "codes of war," which stated that anyone who failed to use a weapon to help comrades escape was to be shot.

When Browning insisted that Hearst testify about her actions in "the missing year," the jury was sent from the room again. Bailey accused the prosecution of prodding Hearst to incriminate herself and leave herself open to prosecution in another case. Her only alternative would be to invoke the Fifth Amendment, possibly implying guilt. Browning replied that the Fifth Amendment was applicable only in discussing a crime. He had not suggested a crime had occurred.

Without speaking of it openly in court, each side was well aware of what the other was pursuing. A woman had been killed in a SLA bank robbery in Sacramento during the "missing year." Hearst had not been involved, but Bailey wanted the jury to hear no mention of it.

When Judge Carter allowed Hearst to claim the privilege against self-incrimination, it seemed as though Bailey had won the point. The victory turned out to apply only to the closed hearing. In his formal decision several days later, Judge Carter declared that he would allow questions about the "missing year." Over Bailey's loud objections, the judge ruled that Hearst had waived her right not to testify about the period by taking the stand and talking about events at both ends of the disputed 17 months.

The jury returned to the courtroom. As Browning's questions began, Bailey stood beside Hearst, instructing her not to answer. The Sacramento robbery was not mentioned, but the jury heard Hearst refuse to answer 42 prosecution questions implying her intimate involvement with the SLA. Judge Carter instructed the jurors that they could draw inferences from her silence if they so wished.

Psychiatrists Testify of Brainwashing

Even Judge Carter appeared to doze off during the weeks of psychiatric analysis that followed. Bailey produced three psychiatric experts, who testified that Hearst's behavior was the result of brainwashing or "coercive persuasion" techniques like those used by Chinese Communists on American prisoners of war during the Korean War. Hearst's behavior was diagnosed to be consistent with the traumas she had suffered. The government called its own experts. One felt that Hearst had cooperated with the SLA voluntarily because she enjoyed her new-found notoriety. Another described her as a "rebel in search of a cause" before her kidnapping.

In his summation, Browning methodically cataloged every action that might indicate Hearst's sympathy with the SLA, from the gunfire at the sporting goods store to her possession of a Mexican trinket given to her by Willie Wolfe. The prosecutor found it incredible that she had not tried to escape during all of her time with the SLA. Bailey's final argument was brief and rambling by comparison.

The jury found Hearst guilty of robbery and use of a firearm in the commission of a felony. Judge Carter imposed preliminary maximum sentences for each crime, with a review contingent on the results of yet another psychiatric report. Before it began, Hearst's lung collapsed. The examinations resumed after her recovery. Psychiatrists pressed Hearst to state some remorse for her involvement in the robbery, but she refused, saying that her agreement to accompany the SLA to the bank was the only thing that stopped them from killing her. Under such circumstances, she maintained, she would do the same thing again. Ironically, the government sought and received Hearst's help in gathering information about the SLA, even as it was prosecuting her. She agreed to testify against the Harrises.

On September 24, 1976, after already serving more than a year in jail, Hearst was finally sentenced to seven years imprisonment. She was freed in November on $1.5 million bail pending the appeal of her robbery conviction. She pleaded "no contest" to charges of assault and robbery in the Mel's Sporting Goods incident and was released on probation because she posed no threat to the community.

She returned to prison more than a year later when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear her appeal. She changed lawyers. Her new attorney, George C. Martinez, filed motions in federal court, urging that her sentence be reduced to time served and that her conviction be overturned on the grounds that her former attorneys did not defend her adequately. Hearst accused Bailey of being preoccupied with his plans to write a lucrative book about her case.

Hearst has Groundswell of Support

A "Committee For the Release of Patricia Hearst" sent thousands of letters to President Jimmy Carter urging him to commute her sentence. U.S. Representative Leo Ryan of California circulated a petition on her behalf in Congress. It was signed by 48 members, who agreed that "never before in the history of our country has such a bizarre set of circumstances led to such a tragic result: a victim of a violent kidnapping participated in a bank robbery under the direction and motivation of her abductors."

In November 1978, all motions to reduce Hearst's sentence or to set aside the verdict on grounds of insufficiency of counsel were denied. Hearst remained in prison, maintaining her innocence and refusing to discuss parole because of its imputation of guilt.

President Jimmy Carter conditionally commuted Hearst's sentence on February 1, 1979. The White House declared that it was the consensus of all of those most familiar with this case that but for the extraordinary criminal and degrading experiences that the petitioner suffered as a victim of the SLA, she would not have become a participant in the criminal acts for which she stands convicted and sentenced and would not have suffered the punishment and other consequences she has endured.

Thomas C. Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

Alexander, Shana. Anyone's Daughter: The Times and Trials of Patty Hearst. New York: Viking Press, 1979.

Dershowitz, Alan M. The Best Defense. New York: Random House, 1982.

Hearst, Patricia Campbell with Alvin Moscow. Every Secret Thing. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1982.

Kohn, Howard and David Weir. "Tania's World." Rolling Stone (June 11, 1992): 100.

McLellan, Vin and Paul Avery. The Voices of the Guns. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1977.