SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- State prosecutors pursuing murder charges against five former members of the 1970s era Symbionese Liberation Army are relying on testimony that conflicts with eyewitnesses from a federal trial 26 years ago.
They're shaping their theory of the fatal 1975 bank robbery largely on the statements of kidnapped newspaper heiress Patricia Campbell Hearst.
But federal prosecutors discounted Hearst's testimony a quarter-century ago. Defense attorneys say they can now use the inconsistency to undermine the state's star witness.
Until now, the only person charged in the April 21, 1975, robbery of the Carmichael branch of the Crocker National Bank near Sacramento was Hearst's one-time lover, Steven Soliah.
Two eyewitnesses placed Soliah inside the bank when an alleged accomplice killed 42-year-old Myrna Opsahl as she entered to deposit a church collection.
"I'm still certain," Kathleen P. James said Tuesday. At the time, the pregnant bank bookkeeper swore she had a "face-to-face" encounter with Soliah during the holdup, and couldn't have mistaken him for another customer as defense attorneys suggested.
But Soliah was acquitted by the federal jury, thanks in part to an alibi witness whose testimony was later contradicted.
Now state prosecutors say he wasn't in the bank at all.
Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully said she relied on Hearst's statements in bringing the new charges, though she said Hearst's account is bolstered by new physical evidence.
Hearst alleges Soliah and William Harris were across the street standing guard, while she and Wendy Yoshimura drove getaway cars.
Inside the bank, she said, were Soliah's sister, Kathleen, who avoided capture for 23 years while living as Minnesota housewife Sara Jane Olson; Emily Montague, who was married to Harris at the time; Michael Bortin, who later married Soliah's sister, Josephine; and James Kilgore, who remains at large.
Scully charged all four people Hearst says were in the bank, plus Harris. Hearst herself can't be prosecuted, nor can Yoshimura or Steven Soliah, because they were granted immunity in exchange for their grand jury testimony in 1991.
Hearst had been living with Steven Soliah before her capture in September 1975 in a San Francisco apartment. The FBI eventually found a "bait bill" stolen from the bank wrapped with other currency hidden in the refrigerator of the home they shared, along with pistol ammunition they said matched bullets used in the robbery.
"There is good basis for disbelieving the word of a woman who wants to look out for her boyfriend," Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Nichols said at the time.
Former U.S. Attorney Dwayne Keyes, who prosecuted the case himself, said Monday he chose to stick with his eyewitnesses rather than undermining his own case with Hearst's questionable testimony.
"We couldn't present two theories of the case to the same jury. It was Hearst against our teller," said Keyes, now a retired Fresno County Superior Court judge.
Scully declined comment through a spokeswoman. She previously said new evidence supporting Hearst's statements includes a link between shotgun pellets at the bank and in an SLA safe house in San Francisco, and a palm print linked to Olson after her arrest in 1999.
James Bustamante, who represents Bortin, said defense attorneys may call Keyes' eyewitnesses to demonstrate that the 1976 prosecutors placed Soliah in the bank while the state prosecutors do not.
"Every time we get an opportunity to point out inconsistencies, we will bring that up," Bustamante said. An evidentiary hearing is set for May 17 in Sacramento County Superior Court.
Hearst's attorney, George C. Martinez, said last month that defense attorneys' strategy is to be expected.
"What they say or what I say isn't going to make a difference," Martinez said. "Her veracity will be judged by the jury at the time of any trial."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.