• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The People v. Patty Hearst

The really good trials, for reasons that Aristotle could explain, have the power and appeal of folk drama. An evil deed has been committed off stage, now the chorus is assembled in a box to one side, the personified forces of destiny and the furies speak. If the trial is a criminal one, the satisfying ending seems to be when someone guilty is led off to prison, and if the trial is a politicial one, then the popular ending is freedom and vindication.

Some of the malice and confusion among the vast audience of the Patricia Hearst trial was probably owing to its being a modern play—qualified, ironic, and absurd—and it was hard to know whether it was about crime, as billed, or about politics, as it seemed. Either way, the trial did not satisfy, and the audience was restless throughout; petulant bombers let off bombs, reporters jostled and sneered, red-eyed Swarthmore dropouts lined up twenty-four hours in advance in hopes of seeing Her; assorted people, ignoring the fact that publicity is thought to harm defendants in trials, mounted an angry demonstration protesting that the white bourgeois press was paying too much attention to Patty and not enough to their favorite trial, of the San Quentin Six. Most people I talked to here in San Francisco said that they didn’t know much about trials, but they knew what they liked, and they hoped she’d really “get it.”

Indeed they probably could not have said why they felt that way. Seldom has the manifest content of the action (a “funky ten-thousand-dollar bank robbery,” one witness called it) seemed more unrelated to the latent content, the grounds on which she was actually tried and convicted—an outcome that seems to have precipitated a national mood of self-congratulation.

Among those who wanted conviction were, first, everybody who hates the Hearsts—this includes a lot of the press and a lot of Californians; the large number of people who hate the rich in general and are glad to see that they can be brought to trial the same as you and me; all those who hate radicals, and, related to them, those who mistrust anybody who takes the Fifth; and a group whose number we might have thought had diminished since the Sixties—those who mistrust the sexually “immoral,” people who smoke dope, spoiled brats who try to “get their own way,” and, in particular, undutiful children and rebellious women. How Patty got along with her parents and her fiancé Steve figured heavily in mail received against her by newspapers and government prosecutors. Finally, of course, we have all been taught to hate snitches. How cleverly the prosecution maneuvered the sympathies of these disparate elements into a symphony of public satisfaction.

Inside the courtroom the daily cast included the senior Hearsts, models of parental constancy, the fascinated sisters, F. Lee (called Flea in the San Francisco press) Bailey, a very smart man whose excellence as a lawyer was probably offset by local mistrust of smart imported lawyers, government prosecutor James Browning, a slow man who saw his main chance here, and the defendant, a five-foot-two-inch ninety-pound frightened young woman to whom all was happening just as her captors had promised it would. Under ordinary circumstances it is doubtful that any of these people would be in court at all, except perhaps in Judge Oliver Carter’s court.

This was kind of a bum rap. “Patty Hearst or ‘Joan Schmerdling’ would have been tried for this robbery,” Browning said, but in fact the government usually would not have rushed to prosecute probably the least culpable participant, one who had been kidnaped only seventy days before the crime and spent fifty-seven of those days locked in a closet. Even if we assume that she had by the time of the bank robbery joined her captors, that in itself is not uncommon, and precedent exists for the treatment of victims who accompany their captors in the commission of felonies. Duress is often assumed and such people are not prosecuted. There is considerable unseemliness in prosecuting the victim and not even charging the kidnapers. But here the government seems to have special reasons for the unusually harsh treatment of Patty Hearst.

First, it was probably sensitive, and rightly, to charges of bowing to Hearst money and influence. “Joan Schmerdling” would have had a better chance. Federal and local authorities must have seen, also, that beyond indulging their own fondness for prosecuting radicals, a Hearst conviction might set her up to turn state’s evidence in the penalty phase, something she was apparently not willing to do at the time of her capture, ostensibly because of fear, and possibly, of course, because of sympathy. It is also conceivable that the Establishment Hearsts rejected an initial option to have Patty plead guilty and hope for mercy (the sensible course), not because they had been given to understand that no mercy was forthcoming, but from a naïve confidence that their victimized child would triumphantly bob up. In the event, of course, she sank with the Fifth Amendment tied around her neck like a stone.

It is also possible that the government, by maintaining to the last that this was a serious revolutionary movement it had to protect us from, sought to mitigate the damage done to the prestige of the FBI and law enforcement in general by its ineptness and by the singular atrocity of police behavior at the SLA shootout in Los Angeles. The American treatment of a situation which would have been met, say in England, by bringing up a chemical toilet and a box of sandwiches for the long wait was a national disgrace abroad, however popular it may have been here. In its sudden and disproportionate violence, it seemed to reflect a peculiarly American taste in denouement.

In his summation, Browning reiterated the substance of the government contention that Hearst’s story of having been coerced into joining the SLA was “incredible.” “It’s too big a pill to swallow, ladies and gentlemen. It just does not wash.” To some it might seem more incredible that an abused and imprisoned victim could easily, without coercion, be taken in by the peculiarly incoherent ideology of the SLA, to say nothing of their cockroach-ridden life style. But the government usually seems to attribute to left-wing ideas an ineffable glamour which it supposes will make them irresistible to anyone but themselves.

By the defense the jury was asked to believe that the SLA treatment of Hearst was such that she felt forced to rob the bank to survive, and that thereafter—since there are seventeen months on the lam to account for—she went along with it in a state of demoralized acquiescence, convinced that the FBI was as likely as the SLA to kill her, and that her parents would not ever want to see her again; that her fear of law enforcement agencies was very reasonably increased by viewing the SLA shootout on TV and hearing Attorney General Saxbe denounce her as a common criminal; and that she was afraid of being charged in the bank robbery.

On the stand Hearst appeared forth-right but not forthcoming, an intelligent person who has for now exhausted her rather impressive range of adaptive responses. She could neither elaborate nor embroider, and sometimes simply could not answer to or account for her own actions. “I just don’t know what happened to me, Mr. Browning,” she had to say. A doctor who examined her at the time of her capture said that she is nevertheless dramatically improved since then, when she was literally stupefied and amnesiac. There is still much she cannot, or cannot yet, explain.

The jury could not believe her. They had seen that grinning, power-saluting picture, heard her say she was “pissed off” at being captured (in a conversation with a girlfriend, secretly recorded at the jail). The problem for Hearst was that the jury turned out to have no imagination. They could not imagine the kinds of life conditions people adapt to. They could not imagine that you might read the words of someone else into a tape recorder and not mean them, like poor Tokyo Rose, or could come to think you meant them. They could not imagine that they themselves, like most people, might clumsily assist, rather than resist, an assailant. They could not believe that there actually is such a thing as “coercive persuasion,” or that revolution can seem attractive, or that the SLA were really assassins. In fact, people seem unable to imagine the existence of evil at all, unless it comes wearing evil costumes, as the Manson girls do. What people do understand, as Kant observed, is mere badness.

Therefore the trial became one about Hearst’s badness. Listening to the kind of questions the prosecution asked, you got the feeling that here was Miss Teenage America on trial, for telling the nun to go to hell, for not being a virgin, for feeling ambivalent about getting married. Some schoolgirl lies were dredged up. Quantities of school reports and friends’ opinions were introduced to show that she was independent and self-willed, that is, the type of girl who would join an SLA, instead of being ideally feminine and passive. Independence was spoken of as a moral defect; the prosecution even exerted itself to show that she was sarcastic, until the exasperated Bailey objected that his client was not on trial for sarcasm. Objection sustained. But “Did Miss Hearst ever use marijuana or other narcotics?” witnesses were asked by Browning. Objection: prosecution is trying to tell the jury about inadmissable prior offenses. Objection overruled. “Jury stunned by drug revelations,” crowed the press, relieved that the day had produced at least one sensational detail. Nobody told the jury what percentage of American teenagers smokes grass.

And in fact no one could really have told whether the jury was stunned or not. It appeared uncannily like a group of regular folks—necks no redder than most, faces impassive, unwrinkled polyester clothes. The government could only go on the assumption that inside them there existed the same prejudices that pervade the rest of society—against the young, the hip, the rebellious, the funky, and so on. Despite the jurors’ sanctimonious protestations that it hurt them more than it did her, the government was right about them, and perhaps no one ought to have been surprised. The surprising and distressing thing was the ease with which the government also commanded the sympathies of the young, hip, rebellious, and funky in its prosecution of Hearst. It seems a rather sinister coalition.

Considerations of badness prevailed over convincing evidence of duress, at least where this initial crime was concerned. The gun of Cinque De-Freeze seems to have been pointed at her throughout the bank episode, and the government at first suppressed a photograph showing Camilla Hall’s gun pointed at her too. On the stand, Ulysses Hall, an old prison friend of DeFreeze, gave a convincing account of a discussion of the holdup, in which DeFreeze said that because he neither wanted to kill her nor dared to let her go, his plan was to “front her off” so she’d have to stay with them. He didn’t quite trust her, he told Hall, for “though she say ‘yes’ this, ‘yes’ that, what would you say” in her situation?

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print