The Patty Hearst Saga 50 Years Later: Treated Gently When “Tough on Crime” Rhetoric was Taking Hold

On February 4, 1974, a group of ragtag revolutionaries who called themselves the Symbionese Liberation Army abducted Patty Hearst, an heiress to the Hearst media empire, from her Berkeley apartment. The bold act stunned the world. The shock would only deepen with Hearst’s April Fool’s Day communique announcing that she had decided to“stay and fight” with her revolutionary captors.

Two weeks later Patty and her SLA compatriots robbed the Hibernia bank, a San Francisco institution owned by the father of a childhood friend. This heist would produce the iconic surveillance photo of Patty clutching an M1 carbine rifle. Seventeen months after that, on September 18, 1975, she was captured and arrested in San Francisco for that crime.

The nation had been riveted by the Patty Hearst saga, which included the kidnapping of a 17-year-old high school student in Southern California, the deadly firefight at a Los Angeles SLA safe house, a shootout at a sporting goods store, and additional communiques from Patty in which she professed her revolutionary fervor.

With Patty finally apprehended, a new chapter began—one that would tell us much about the disparities in the U.S. legal system. The 50th anniversary of this infamous kidnapping offers us an opportunity to ask serious questions about how our justice system functions and who it privileges and why.

When Patty returned to her family, she was staring down some daunting legal odds. The calls for revolution behind her,she would make full use of her family’s resources to address them. The criminal charges against her included bank robbery, kidnapping, and other crimes. On the civil front, she was in the crosshairs of an action brought by the family of Myrna Opsahl, a Sacramento mother fatally shot during a Carmichael, California bank robbery she helped plan.Afterwards she drove the getaway car with the SLA robbery team. Opsahl had been delivering church offerings to bank. The SLA team faced the possibility of a felony murder indictment. The average prison sentence for armed bank robbery is 12-years plus, and kidnappers typically serve three to eight years. The Hearsts assembled a crack legal team to represent Patty, which included celebrity lawyer F. Lee Bailey.

All of this was taking place at a time when “tough on crime” rhetoric and policies were beginning to take hold. Two years earlier, Richard Nixon had declared in a radio address, “I will propose a revision of the entire Federal Criminal Code, modernizing it and strengthening it … When I say ‘modernize,’ incidentally, I do not mean to be soft on crime; I mean exactly the opposite.”

On March 26, 1976, Patty was convicted of bank robbery and using a firearm in the commission of a felony. Her lawyers’ claims of coercion and brainwashing failed to exonerate her. She was looking at a potential sentence of up to 35 years for the crimes for which she was now convicted.

The trial judge in her case, Oliver Carter, had known her father Randy Hearst for years and met Patty as a child. He died shortly after her conviction and his successor, William Orrick, sentenced her to seven years. After kidnap victim Hearst pled no contest in the case brought against her for kidnapping a teenager, the prosecutor responded like a priest in a confessional. Reassured by her contriteness, he persuaded judge Mark Brandler—who happened to be one of my relatives—to suspend her sentence. In a time when “tough on crime” was becoming a mantra for some politicians, the legal system would prove notably gentle in this case.

Patty’s father, Randy Hearst, made a significant contribution to a $300,000 out-of-court settlement awarded to the family of Myrna Opsahl. Unlike several of her partners in this crime, she was never prosecuted for her role in it.

The Hearsts launched and financed the influential Committee to Free Patty Hearst, which sought to spring her from prison before her seven-year sentence was fully served. The family quickly enlisted the support of San Francisco FBI Agent in Charge Charles Bates, the voice of the agency that bunked in at the Hearst home during the search for Patty.

Although Patty had walked through United Farm Workers picket lines at Safeway, their leader, Cesar Chavez, didn’t hold a grudge. He supported her release along with Ronald, Reagan, John Wayne and William F. Buckley.

All the family’s hard work, some of it done by Hearst volunteers, paid off. After just 22 months in jail President Jimmy Carter saw the light and commuted Patty’s sentence. This wouldn’t be the last time the White House would intervene on her behalf. In 2001, just two hours before he left office, Bill Clinton issued a presidential pardon and officiallycleared Hearst.

Robert S. Mueller, III, who at the time of the pardon application was the U.S. attorney in San Francisco and later would go on to become an FBI director, was withering in his response and not shy about pointing out the class realities at play,“The attitude of Hearst has always been that she is a person above the law and that, based on her wealth and social position, she is not accountable for her conduct despite the jury’s verdict,” he said.

Hearst participated in an armed San Francisco bank robbery; a Carmichael, California, bank robbery that left one person dead; and a Southern California shootout and kidnapping. Her alleged crimes had her face plastered on FBI wanted posters from coast to coast. Yet, three California courts and two Presidential administrations showed a degree of leniency rarely associated with U.S. jurisprudence. Had Hearst come from modest means or been a woman of color it’s unlikely her judicial fate would have been so compassionate.

Since the Patty Hearst saga unfolded the U.S. has indeed become tough on crime. According to the ACLU, “Despite making up close to 5% of the global population, the U.S. has more than 20% of the world’s prison population. Since 1970, our incarcerated population has increased by 500% ­­– 2 million people in jail and prison today, far outpacing population growth and crime.” The prison population is disproportionately Black and Latinx. A recent report revealed that “Significant numbers of women in prison end up there after being disadvantaged as children: 12% report homelessness before they turned 18; 19% were in foster care at some point; and 43% came from families that received welfare or other public assistance.”

It’s hard to imagine someone without the economic and political power of the Hearst family behind her walking free so soon after being sentenced for crimes of such magnitude. Along with announcing that she had decided to “stay and fight” in her infamous communique, Hearst also asserted that, “the corporate ruling class will do anything in their power in order to maintain their position of control.” When one compares how “tough on crime” attitudes and policies visit the rich and the poor, it seems she was right.

Roger D. Rapoport is a journalist who has covered the Patty Hearst case since 1974. His new book is Searching for Patty Hearst.