Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


The Controversial Trial

F. Lee Bailey was a renowned trial attorney, having made history with Sam Sheppard's acquittal, arranged a deal for Albert DeSalvo (the Boston Strangler), and successfully defended Captain Ernest Median in the 1968 My Lai massacre in Vietnam. (However, he'd also thrown one client, Charles Schmidt, a.k.a., the Pied Piper of Tucson, to the wolves, and been accused by DeSalvo of swindling his movie money.) Bailey never hesitated to exploit the media to his advantage.

Having had a bestselling book, he accepted the Hearst case with the stipulation that he get the book rights and that Patty not pen a memoir for at least 18 months after the publication of his. In this he was overly confident. This would not be his shining hour.

The presiding judge was Oliver Carter, who defied legal ethics by granting interviews to Time and the New York Times. He claimed to have known Patty since she was five, which was not true, and to have been in the Hearst home, also untrue. Patty requested another judge, but her lawyers refused to pursue it.

District Attorney James Browning (CORBIS)
District Attorney James Browning

The prosecutor was James Browning, the U. S. Attorney for Northern California, who had not tried a case in seven years. He wanted this one all to himself.

Beginning on February 4th, 1976exactly two years to the day that Patty had been kidnapped-the trial lasted 39 days, generating a barrage of unsympathetic commentary. Many Americans could not understand how an educated, privileged young woman could join a band of cutthroat revolutionaries and do the things she did.

Stephen Soliah in custody (CORBIS)
Stephen Soliah in custody (CORBIS)

While her trial was in session, Kathleen Soliah was indicted in absentia for conspiracy to commit murder with explosives. Her brother Stephen, arrested with Patty, also went on trial.

Bailey hired medical and psychiatric experts to listen to Patty describe her ordeal, wherein SLA members abused her, kept her blindfolded, and threatened her with death, while also subjecting her endlessly to their ideologies. Using those details, the experts were to explain to the jury the notions of mental deterioration and brainwashing.

Psychologist Margaret Singer indicated how Patty's IQ had fallen drastically, while Dr. Louis Joloyn said that she'd been in a state of extreme physical stress. Several experts in mind controlDr. William Sargant. Dr. Martin Orne, and Dr. Robert Jay Liftonaffirmed that Patty had been brainwashed into accepting the SLA's political ideology. However, their details were inconsistent and they failed to apply the research adequately to Patty's rather unique situation.

To counter this, the prosecution called on Dr. Joel Fort, a man who went from one trial to another but appeared to have no clear credentials (which Bailey was not allowed to challenge). Fort claimed that Patty was a willing participant and a "rebel looking for a cause."

Emily and Bill Harris refused to testify against Patty, but offered damning information via media interviews. Browning exploited this and also used video footage to show Patty's apparent delight in participating in the armed robbery with her comrades. A witness indicated that she had smiled at DeFreeze before exiting. The prosecution also pointed out that Patty was unwilling to testify against the other captured members of the SLA, which showed her sympathy for them.

What really hurt her case, in Patty's estimation, was Bailey's closing argument. As he grabbed his notes, she could see that his hands were shaking and his face was flushed. She had the impression that he'd been drinking. His comments to the jury were rambling and irrelevant. Then he knocked a glass of water off the podium and the water hit his crotch. For the rest of his closing, it appeared that he'd wet his pants. Later Patty was to write about how jury members giggled: "It was, to say the least, distracting." To make matters worse, he had flown each evening to Las Vegas to conduct a seminar, and had then flown back for the trial. It was the feeling of many that Bailey's inability to make a forceful statement, whether he was exhausted or inebriated, decided Patty's fate.

On March 20, after a twelve-hour deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of guilty. She received the maximum sentence: 25 years for the robbery, plus ten on the firearms charge. However, a judicial reviewwhich occurred after Judge Carter diedshortened that to seven years. In a second trial on the charges involved in the incident at the sporting goods store, she was given five years probation. An appeal to the Supreme Court was declined, and Patty ended up in the Federal Correctional Institute in Pleasanton, California.

The verdict was argued as fiercely in the American public as the O. J. Simpson verdict in the 1990s, in part because the brainwashing defense was so unusual and so difficult to prove or disprove.

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