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Sara Jane Olson: A Real-Life Kohlberg Dilemma

By Elaine Cassel

In order to study how people think about concepts of right and wrong, psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg presented children and adolescents with hypothetical moral dilemmas. The story of Sara Jane Olson, recently sentenced to prison for her role in a twenty-seven-year-old crime, calls to mind one of Kohlberg’s most well-known hypothetical cases.

Kohlberg’s hypothetical case went something like this: Suppose you found out that your neighbor, a model husband and father and a well-respected local business owner, had long ago escaped from a prison shortly after he had been sentenced to a lengthy term. You don’t know the crime that he committed and you are not obligated by law to turn him in. What would you do? Why?

As a young woman known as Kathleen Soliah, Sara Jane Olson was involved with the radical movement known as the Symbionese Liberation Army, best remembered for the kidnapping of newspaper heiress Patty Hearst. In 1976, Soliah was indicted with others for planting pipe bombs under two Los Angeles police cruisers. The bombs were discovered before any damage was done, but Kathleen went "underground" and was never captured. She settled in St. Paul, Minnesota, changed her name to Sara Jane Olson, married, raised three children, and was an active and much-admired member of her community.

In 1999, after the television show "America’s Most Wanted" featured the crime, Olson was captured in her hometown on her way to give English lessons to immigrants studying for their U.S. citizenship examination. On January 18, 2002, she was sentenced to a twenty-year-to-life prison term after entering a plea of guilty. (She says she agreed to the plea only because she did not believe she could get a fair trial in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks.) After her sentencing, she was charged with murder arising out of a 1975 bank robbery, an accusation she denies. The prosecution said that new information led them to connect Olson with a crime for which Olson’s brother had been tried, and found not guilty, in 1976.

Kolhberg’s dilemmas and Olson’s predicament pit the law against people’s beliefs related to morality and justice. Since no one was killed as a result of the attempted car bombings, and since Olson went on to become a model citizen, should she have been prosecuted at all? Could she have gotten a fair trial given the trial's proximity to the terrorist attacks on this country? How just is her sentence, which leaves behind her family to fend for themselves? What is served by her incarceration?

People who favor the prosecution and punishment could be said to represent Kohlberg’s conventional level of reasoning, in which morality consists of following the law. People who think that Olson has acquitted herself of her youthful misdeeds by living a good life for more than 30 years and should not be prosecuted may represent the postconventional level, in which the law is sometimes seen as arbitrary and destructive. Olson’s decision to become a fugitive may be seen an act of using preconventional reasoning—avoiding punishment rather than subjecting herself to the rule of law.

The son of the woman killed in the bank robbery expressed some ambivalence about the pending murder charge, expressing compassion for Olson and her family but also believing that justice demanded that his mother’s death be avenged. His thinking demonstrates both conventional and postconventional reasoning.

Kohlberg’s hypothetical dilemmas were meant to demonstrate that people’s beliefs about right and wrong vary according to situational and individual factors. The case of Sara Jane Olson is an all-too-real example that what is legal may—or may not—be what we think is moral or just.

Elaine Cassel, Marymount University and Lord Fairfax Community College

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