When the law catches up with ex-radicals

It's fairness vs. forgiveness as 1970s fugitives - who now lead model lives - are finally caught.

The story line is a familiar one. A 1970s radical facing charges of anti-establishment violence and potential jail time disappears, only to be found decades later, living a fruitful life under an assumed name.

It was the story of Kathleen Ann Soliah, who last year was tracked down in St. Paul, Minn., 23 years after she was accused of setting two undetonated bombs beneath a police car.

And it's the story of Howard Mechanic, who this month turned himself in 28 years after he was convicted of heaving a giant firecracker at firefighters trying to put out a blaze during an antiwar protest.

In the intervening decades, Ms. Soliah had become Sara Jane Olsen, a regular churchgoer and a mother of three. Mr. Mechanic had become Gary Tredway, a successful businessman and city council candidate here. Now, years after the upheaval of the 1970s, Americans are being called on to consider the balance of justice and mercy for former radicals.

The examples are many, from Mechanic and Soliah to the FALN Puerto Rican nationalists who waged a terror campaign during the 1970s and were pardoned by President Clinton last year. So far, the message has been somewhat mixed. But courts and public opinion have indicated that America is ready to forgive - within limits.

"If no one was killed or seriously injured, then the courts are inclined to look upon these cases with a lot more leniency against the backdrop of 30 years," says John Burris, a civil rights attorney involved in the Rodney King beating case in Los Angeles. "But that's assuming the person has led an exemplary life since then."

Soliah and Mechanic are far from clear of the charges against them. She's awaiting a court date this spring, and he's currently in a Phoenix jail. But even in the worst case, the sentences for their former crimes could be relatively light.

For Mechanic, "now, the most he should get is maybe 30 days for skipping bail, and that should be the end of it," says Charles Oldham, a St. Louis lawyer familiar with Mechanic's case.

That's a sharp contrast to Mechanic's sentence during the height of the Vietnam War. US District Judge James Meredith gave him five years - the maximum.

Judge Meredith "felt that anybody who didn't go off to get shot in Vietnam, or who protested about anyone else doing it was totally un-American and ought to go to jail for the maximum number of years possible under the law," says Mr. Oldham. "That's what they did in those days."

Today, Mechanic's lawyers want the court to acknowledge how times have changed.

"Most people recognize that Howard's sentence was a product of the times and exceedingly harsh for the conduct involved," says attorney Thomas Hoidal. "Look at [the World Trade Organization] protests in Seattle. That was much more destructive ..., and we don't see any five-year sentences coming out of that."

Besides, some observers say, many former radicals aren't who they used to be.

"A lot of these people now wouldn't want to defend what they did so long ago," says Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University in Washington. "People were very mad back then, on all sides."

For Angela Davis, the turbulent days of the 1970s left marks that are just now vanishing. After years on the FBI's most-wanted list, Ms. Davis was apprehended and later acquitted of aiding black prisoners who killed a trial judge in 1970. Today, she's a noted author and was even considered to head the library in Oakland, Calif. Davis didn't get the job, but hardly due to her past.

"She's just very busy in her own life," says Jim Nemechek, spokesman for Mayor Jerry Brown. "Still, the mayor saw her as a visionary who could bring status to the Oakland library system, and I think, as a kindred spirit of sorts."

Mr. Clinton showed his willingness to move beyond the past when he pardoned members of the Puerto Rican Armed Forces for National Liberation. While the move drew praise from many liberals, it was also widely criticized, hinting that the tension is still strong between law-and-order conservatism and a desire to forgive.

"The mood of the nation hasn't changed much from the Nixon years to the present - they have been fairly conservative years," says David Burner, author of "Making Peace With the '60s." "But at the same time, most people think things that happened 30 years ago don't particularly count, unless it's a heinous crime like murder."

Despite this apparent leniency, Mechanic may still have legal problems ahead. In addition to the original 1970 conviction, he's also accused of using a false Social Security number to obtain an Arizona driver's license, and he could be charged for campaigning for Scottsdale City Council under an assumed name.

"The throwback to harsh times comes in piling on these new charges, as if the community was offended by his deception," says Barbara Babcock, a law professor at Stanford University. "The judges hand out strong penalties to scare other people, really more than to punish the person involved."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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