Party Hearst: A Brainwashed Criminal?

For more than two years, starting in February of 1974, the story of how the heiress to a journalistic empire collided with a radical political group took headlines nationwide. Though Hearst herself has made her standpoint clear in the years following the trial, and two presidents have intervened in her favor, the verdict is still a topic of intense debate. The trial and the story behind it also exist as a representation of the surrounding culture at the time.

Patricia Hearst was the granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst, pioneer in “yellow journalism”. (“William Randolph Hearst”) She was going to college and living in Berkeley, California with her tutor turned fiancée, Steven Weed when on the evening of February 4th, 1974, she was kidnapped. (Carlsen)

Started as the Black Cultural Association, what was to become the Symbionese Liberation Army first worked with inmates at Vacaville prison in California to teach them about African heritage and racial politics. Donald DeFreeze, an inmate at one of the prisons where the B.C.A. taught, started a prison group with a more racially-inclined agenda, called Unisight. In March 1973, two B.C.A. tutors, Russell White and William Wolfe, helped DeFreeze escape and find shelter with two women who would later become the Symbionese Liberation Army’s first members. In August, the group, now a group of 10, moved to a commune in Conchord, California. A few months later, they committed their first crime; killing a black Oakland school superintendent they accused of being racist. The backlash from the murder put the group into hiding until the next year. (“The Rise and fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army”)

Two media releases by the group followed the Hearst kidnapping, one taking responsibility, and the other demanding the Hearst family organize a food giveaway program for Berkley’s poor. Though the program, called People In Need, did begin, its first day, February 22nd, ended in riots. The S.L.A. was not impressed, with Patty herself stating in a later tape, “I don't believe that you're [her family] doing anything at all.” After a promised negotiation for her release, another tape released on April 3rd announced that Patty had allied with the S.L.A. and had taken the name of “Tania.”

The first crime “Tania” was a part of was a bank robbery on April the fifteenth, in which $10,000 was stolen. A wanted poster released soon after by the FBI only listed Hearst as a material witness, though another tape featuring “Tania” was released the following day taking full responsibility. Fearing being caught, the S.L.A. began to move throughout California, stopping to cause a shootout in Los Angeles on May 16th. The next day, the FBI founds a Compton S.L.A. hideout, and set it on fire. “Tania” was presumed dead until she released another tape in June. That summer, Hearst was driven to a house in rural Pennsylvania, where she hid for a year. (“Timeline: Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst”) Her story with the S.L.A. ended in June of 1975, when she was arrested along with three other members of the group in San Francisco for the April robbery.

Her parents, convinced she was brainwashed since the first “Tania” tape, hired lawyers F. Lee Bailey and J. Albert Johnson to defend her using that argument. By the time of her trial in 1976, she claimed that she only took part in the robbery out of fear. (Carlsen) However, on March 11th, she was found guilty of her charges and sentenced to seven years in prison. (“Timeline: Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst”) The media coverage surrounding the case led to Hearst’s guilt was a popular talking point throughout the nation, even after the verdict. Some believed Hearst’s claim that she was brainwashed. Dahlia Lithwick, writing for Slate in 2002, said that Patty Heart’s case is one of the most famous examples of the “brainwashing defense,” adding that “Hearst's brainwashing claim ultimately succeeded—not in any court of law, but in the court of public opinion.” (Lithwick)

Not everyone seemed to be convinced of Hearst’s innocence, however. James Boggs, who was one of the detectives at a shootout caused by Hearst and the SLA, told the Los Angeles Times in 1989 that he disagreed with a request by the Hearst family for a pardon, calling the crime “irrelevant” and saying that "...I'm happy she's put the whole thing behind her. But to try to erase it from history is another thing." (Rotella) The attorney at the trial, James L. Browning, never thought of Hearst as innocent, telling SFGate that "When she was in that bank, she acted with verve and great purpose, and she avoided apprehension for a year and a half, when she had plenty of opportunities to walk away and come home. The fact is she had joined them." (Carlsen)

Eventually, however, Hearst’s sentence of seven years was commuted in 1979 by then president Jimmy Carter and she was later pardoned entirely by president Bill Clinton in 2001.

Patricia Hearst herself seems to has always thought of herself as innocent, saying in a 2002 interview with Larry King that “I would serve every day of my sentence...I was happy to do it, in fact, if the alternative would be to say I was guilty, and my children know this… they were thrilled when President Clinton pardoned me.” ("Interview with Patty Hearst.") In another interview with King a year earlier, Patricia also stated that, "... the FBI and Oakland authorities had the plans to my kidnapping 24 days before it happened, and they didn't warn me.” (“Patricia Hearst Discusses Her Presidential Pardon.”)

These discordant opinions only make sense when the case in put in the context of the time period. Between Hearst’s kidnapping and her arrest, Richard Nixon started and resigned his second term, Arab countries caused major gas shortages, and the Vietnam conflict finally came to a close. (“Timeline: Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst”) Needless to say, it was an unusually tense time in American history. It wasn’t just political forces that were at play, however. Writing for the Atlantic in 2008, Caitlin Flanagan wrote about the Hearst kidnapping as representative of a rising cultural rebellion. According to her, “Patty Hearst caught our attention because she was an innocent and largely naive young woman who was being fought over, in public, by two powerful forces: her parents and “the culture” in its most extreme and violent manifestation.” (Flanagan)

J. Albert Johnson told SFGate in 1999 that "Patty was a victim of her times. She was a victim of a cruel kidnapping. She was a victim of the American people, who despised her because she represented the radical nature of young people at the time. She was the victim of the rich, who thought of her as impudent and disrespectful, and a victim of the left and the poor who saw her as a spoiled little rich girl. But most of all she was a victim of the system that prosecuted her.” (Carlsen) Even regardless of the surrounding culture at the time, however, this case was and still is shocking because it is so unusual. Though kidnappings for money had occurred before, the fact that the kidnappers preferred social programs and political reforms as ransom instead makes it an oddity. The addition of “Tania” brought another curveball to an already sensational story. Finally, Hearst’s brainwashing defense, while unsuccessful in proving her innocence, reignited a fear of radical groups. John Wayne said after the Jonestown suicides, which occurred soon after the Patty Hearst case, that, “It seems quite odd to me that the American people have immediately accepted the fact that one man can brainwash 900 human beings into mass suicide, but will not accept the fact that a ruthless group, the Symbionese Liberation Army, could brainwash a little girl by torture, degradation and confinement.” (Lithwick)

Though much of the case’s background was steeped in the culture, it would not be difficult for something similar to happen today. The S.L.A. of today might be a terrorist group instead, and they would be able to send their press releases through the internet, but otherwise the core of the case would not be that different. The story of a kidnapped rich girl joining a radical political group would be just as sensational today as it was back in 1974. The crimes of “Tania”, however, have been outshined by cases of “affluenza” and minors committing murders. One could argue that this would make convicting a modern “Tania” for a similar crime more possible. However, in a 1997 Dateline interview, Hearst did say that she “…wouldn't even be charged today because people don't charge kidnap victims for crimes they committed while in the company of their kidnappers.” ("Kidnapped Heiress: The Patty Hearst Story.") One thing that would not probably not change if the case happened today would be the collection of evidence,considering that one of the S.L.A.’s crimes included a shootout which gave away their location. (“Timeline: Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst”) Though it could be argued that “Tania” and the S.L.A. would be caught quicker today due to the rapid speed at which information travels, considering how much of a high-profile story the original case was, it is unlikely that this would be the case.

In this writer’s opinion, Patty Hearst is not innocent, but she was not entirely guilty either. While she was kidnapped and tortured by a radical political group, which that might have made it easier for her to simply join the cause, it seems unlikely that this would be her only reasoning. A taped conversation from jail after her initial arrest included Hearst admitting that “…my politics are real different from way back when. Obviously. So this creates all kinds of problems for me in terms of a defense. When I was first arrested, I was still a real mess. I said a lot of crazy things.” (“Kidnapped Heiress: The Patty Hearst Story.”) Considering Berkley’s reputation as being a liberal hotbed, especially at the time, it could be possible that Hearst did ease up to some of the S.L.A.’s ideas, such as racial equality and economic reform. Hearst even admitted in an interview that she was raised in a very conservative family, giving credence to the possibility of her at least mulling over newfound leftist ideals. (“Patricia Hearst Discusses Her Presidential Pardon”) Her relationship with Steven Weed, who was not liked by her parents, may also be proof of her possibly rebellious nature.

It can be argued that the Hearst family purposely wanted to sweep the idea that Patty voluntary joined the S.L.A. under the rug. One piece of evidence toward this theory the first lawyer the Hearst family considered to defend Patty was Terence Hallinan, who wanted to use the defense of involuntary intoxication. However, according to Hallinan, the Hearst parents insisted on using a defense based on brainwashing and fear, and ended up hiring F. Lee Bailey and J. Albert Johnson instead. In his own words, “I kept telling them that's not a defense….they just didn't agree with me.” (“Kidnapped Heiress: The Patty Hearst Story.”)

There is a possible explanation for why the Hearst family was pushing the brainwashing defense: the S.L.A. might have represented a rising fear of radicalism. New religious movements, cults, and political movements were considered by some Americans to be one and the same. The S.L.A.’s use of guerilla tactics and aggressive motto, “Death to the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people.” didn’t help soften their reputation. (Sullentrop) J. Albert Johnson even told SFGate, when referring to his talks with Patty Hearst, that “It was never planned as a deprogramming, never. She just slowly freed herself from the brainwashing." (Carlsen) This certainly suggests that the Hearsts thought of the S.L.A. in this way. Combined with their conservative nature, it is likely that the Hearsts purposely wanted to push the idea that Patty was brainwashed, and that she had no interest in the S.L.A.’s political ideas.

Hearst herself told Dateline in 1997 that there was “So much anger directed at me because of the war, Watergate, the whole 60's generation that had disappointed their parents so badly.” ("Kidnapped Heiress: The Patty Hearst Story.") Caitlin Flanagan, a young girl at the time of the story, described the effect she thought the case had decades later: “...we couldn’t let the story go, not because Patty herself fascinated us, but because we were desperate to know, in the epic battle for her affections, whom she would choose...It was the kind of question many of us were grappling with in our own lives, and Patty Hearst gave us the perfect excuse to talk about our own situations without really talking about them, not directly. We needed someone like her just then. ” (Flanagan)

Regardless of anyone’s opinion on her innocence, it is undoubtable that the political and social climate of the time heavily influenced Hearst’s case and trial. However, such a case could easily happen again today because so many of the elements are still in play; ransom-based kidnappings, political unrest, and youthful rebellion. In that way, this case is both timeless and of its time, only adding to its unusual nature.

Works Cited

Carlsen, William. "The Kidnapping That Gripped the Nation / Heiress Patty Hearst's Abduction 25 Years Ago Took the Entire Country on a Wild Ride." SFGate. Hearst Communications, Inc., 4 Feb. 1999. Web. 18 May 2016.

Flanagan, Caitlin. "Girl, Interrupted." Editorial. The Atlantic Sept. 2008: n. pag. The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company. Web. 15 May 2016.

Hearst, Patricia. "Interview with Patty Hearst." Interview by Larry King. CNN.com Transcripts. CNN. 22 Feb. 2016. Television. Transcript.

"Kidnapped Heiress: The Patty Hearst Story." Dateline. NBC. 25 July 2009.Newsmakers on Dateline. Web. 22 May 2016. Transcript.

Lithwick, Dahlia. "The Return of the "brainwashed" Defense." Slate Magazine. The Slate Group, 28 Jan. 2002. Web. 02 May 2016.

Moxley, John, and Patricia Hearst. "Patricia Hearst Discusses Her Presidential Pardon." Interview by Larry King. CNN.com Transcripts. CNN. 21 Jan. 2001. Television. Transcript.

The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, ed. "William Randolph Hearst."Encyclopædia Britannica. N.d. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, 28 May 2015. Web. 18 May 2016.

"The Rise and fall of the Symbionese Liberation Army." American Experience. PBS Online, 16 Feb. 2005. Web. 2 May 2016.

Rotella, Sebastian. "Officer Who Investigated Patty Hearst's 1974 Shoot-out in Inglewood Says the Incident Shouldn't Be 'erased from History.'" Los Angeles Times 22 Jan. 1989: n. pag. Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times. Web. 2 May 2016.

Suellentrop, Chris. "What Is the Symbionese Liberation Army?" Slate Magazine. The Slate Group, a Graham Holdings Company, 24 Jan. 2002. Web. 17 May 2016.

"Timeline: Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst." American Experience. PBS Online, 16 Feb. 2005. Web. 2 May 2016.