LOS ANGELES – Former fugitive radical Sara Jane Olson, sentenced to 20 years to life Friday for conspiring to blow up police cars in 1975, apologized in court for her violent past even while she denied the charges on which she had been convicted.
Olson's friends and family sobbed openly in the courtroom as she asked those who were affected by the actions of the anti-government Symbionese Liberation Army to "forgive me for the pain I've brought you."
But she denied that she had tried to murder cops by planting bombs under two Los Angeles police cars to avenge the deaths of six SLA members during a shootout in 1974. The bombs didn't explode.
Olson, 55, who had pleaded guilty to the charges against her and then tried to withdraw her plea, maintained her innocence while she asked for forgiveness.
"I still maintain I didn't participate in events in Los Angeles," she said. "I hope you'll forgive me the pain I have brought you. ... I am a person in court today who truly, while grateful for all that I had — my life has had quite a lot, as you can see.
"For any mistakes that I have made, I accept responsibility for any pain I have caused. I accept responsibility and I am truly sorry."
But not everyone was feeling sorry for Olson. John Hall, one of the targeted Los Angeles cops, also testified Friday. He described seeing a child in a restaurant window the night the bomb was discovered.
"Your honor, it horrifies me to think that the lives of dozens of innocent people, like that child in the window, would have ended in an instant had the defendant and co-conspirator successfully carried out their terrorist acts," he said.
Retired Officer Martin Feinmark said he actually crawled under a car at the Hollenbeck police station to see what had been planted there. If he had continued to inspect the bomb, he said he would have been blown up.
"Justice has been served – we're alive," Feinmark said after the sentencing.
Superior Court Judge Larry Fidler sentenced Olson to two consecutive terms of 10 years to life, but said state law will allow the Board of Prison Terms to recalculate the term after she is in prison.
"She could have it fixed as little as five years," Fidler said.
Immediately afterward, Olson pleaded innocent to robbery and murder charges in another decades-old crime: a 1975 SLA bank holdup in which a bystander, Myrna Opsahl, was killed.
Olson has long denied taking part in the robbery in a suburb of Sacramento. She and four other former SLA members were charged in the case this week; two of them, divorced couple Bill and Emily Harris, were expected to enter innocent pleas in a Sacramento courtroom later Friday.
Olson was a fugitive for more than 20 years until her arrest two years ago in Minnesota. She had changed her name from Kathleen Soliah and was living the life of a community activist with a doctor husband and three daughters.
Before Friday's sentencing, daughter Leila, 14, sobbed aloud as she told the court: "She is one of the best mothers anybody would ever want."
"I'll be always at your side no matter what," she told Olson, then fell into her mother's arms as sobs wracked her body.
Olson choked back tears as her husband, Gerald Peterson, said the two had been happily married for 23 years.
"To my lovely wife Sara, California is now entrusted to clothe you, to feed you, shelter you and correct you and try you," he said. "But this family of ours and our dear friends will not be diminished in our love for you and our respect for you. We will always stand by you until you come home."
"I want to say again that my daughter was never a member of the SLA," said Olson's mother, Elsie Soliah. She went to her daughter at the defense table and hugged and kissed her. "It's all right. It's OK," Soliah said.
The SLA began in the fall of 1973 when a handful of white, college-educated children of middle-class families adopted a seven-headed snake as their symbol, a black ex-convict as their leader and the phrase, "Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people" as their slogan.
The group derived its name from "symbiosis," a biological term referring to unlike organisms coexisting harmoniously for mutual benefit.
The SLA claimed responsibility for the murder of Oakland Schools Superintendent Marcus Foster, because he supposedly favored a police plan for students to carry identification.
But the group is best known for the 1974 kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patricia Hearst, who later joined the group in robbing banks and could become a key witness in the murder trials.
The long-dormant case gathered legal momentum after Olson's arrest. Prosecutors say they have new information, and the FBI has linked shotgun pellets found in Opsahl's body to ammunition from an SLA house.
Court files also say Olson's palm print matches prints on the door of a Sacramento garage where the group stored a getaway car.
Olson's bombing case had seesawed since Oct. 31, when she announced a surprise decision to plead guilty to possessing bombs with intent to murder police officers.
Her plea was immediately thrown into question when she told reporters she was really innocent and had pleaded guilty because the Sept. 11 attacks had created a climate in which anyone accused of domestic terrorism could not be acquitted.
She was ordered back into court, where she eventually lost a battle to withdraw her plea and go to trial.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.