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When the victim becomes the criminal: a fresh look at the story of Patty Hearst

August 5, 2016 at 6:05 PM EDT
In 1974, William Randolph Hearst’s granddaughter Patty was abducted from her California home by members of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army. After subsequent events suggested the teenager had joined the group, she was captured and sentenced -- but later pardoned. Jeffrey Toobin tells the story anew in “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.”
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: revisiting a strange kidnapping saga that captured the nation’s attention back in the 1970s.

Jeffrey Brown has the latest edition of our “NewsHour” Bookshelf.

JEFFREY BROWN: On February 4, 1974, 19-year-old Patty Hearst, granddaughter of publishing titan William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped from her home in Berkeley, California, by members of a radical group that called itself the Symbionese Liberation Army.

It was an event that riveted the nation, even more so when, not long after her abduction, it began to look as though Hearst might have joined the group. In April, she took part in a bank robbery. Hearst was captured in September 1975, more than a year after six members of the SLA were killed in a gun battle with police in Los Angeles.

She served almost two years in prison before her sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter. She later received a full pardon from President Clinton.

The incredible story is told anew in “American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst.”

And author Jeffrey Toobin, staff writer at “The New Yorker” and legal analyst for CNN, joins me now.

Welcome.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, Author, “American Heiress”: Good to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to begin where you do. It’s the strangeness of this period, the early 1970s, the violence that was almost routine in a country at that time that is difficult to even remember or imagine.

JEFFREY TOOBIN: Think about one fact, one fact alone, 1,000 political bombings a year in ’72, ’73, ’74. Almost inconceivable. That was what the world was like.

Skyjackings were epidemic.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JEFFREY TOOBIN: You had an actual revolutionary movement in this country that, while never likely to succeed, was disrupting the country, especially Northern California, in a way that’s it’s just hard to believe.

JEFFREY BROWN: I was just even thinking about the opening of the Olympics, of course, in 1972 was the Munich Olympics, right, what happened there.

JEFFREY TOOBIN: Of course.

JEFFREY BROWN: That the world…

JEFFREY TOOBIN: And Watergate and the energy crisis, nervous breakdown collectively for the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. Yes. All right.

So, when you start thinking about Patty Hearst — and you say it — the central question, right, which side was she on, in a sense? Before all this happened, there was no hint of politics in her?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: She was a kid. She was 19 years old.

And she was utterly unknown to her kidnappers, except that she was a Hearst and a student at Cal. But what they didn’t know is that she was at a very restless moment in her life. She was engaged to be married to Steven Weed, who she was living, but unhappy, starting to develop a bit of political consciousness.

And after those few first days of terror — and they were horrible days of terror — she did become receptive to their appeals.

JEFFREY BROWN: The Symbionese Liberation Army, the kidnappers, right, in your telling, no real plan of what they wanted to do, no — a kind of vague revolutionary ideology of the time, but they had killed. They were quite serious in their intent.

JEFFREY TOOBIN: They had killed the Oakland school superintendent in a mad act, a heroic African-American educator named Marcus Foster.

But several of the SLA members came out of the Indiana University theater program. And they did have a sense of guerrilla theater about them. They knew how to put on a show. And that’s why they were so captivating to the nation. They had no real plan for what they were going to do more than 24 hours ahead. But during each act, they knew how to get a lot of attention.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so come back to this early period of her capture. So many questions about what happened, right?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: There were questions then and now about sexual abuse, rape. In her telling, rape happened, that she had a — sexual relationship with one of them.

What do you conclude about what took place, did she turn, why she turned?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: Well, certainly, in the immediate aftermath of the kidnapping, this was pure terrorism, and she had no part in it, she had no foreknowledge. But after a few weeks, there was a bond that developed between Patricia and her kidnappers.

And if you look at the range of her activities, from her kidnapping in February of ’74, the robbery of the Hibernia Bank with the very familiar photographs of her with the machine gun, all the way to her arrest in September of ’75, almost a year-and-a-half later, the enormous numbers of crimes she committed, three bank robberies, one in which a woman was killed, shooting up a street in Los Angeles, bombings that she participated in, in San Francisco, and the multiple, multiple opportunities she had to escape, I conclude that she did, in fact, voluntarily join the SLA.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is not her version, right?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: This is not.

JEFFREY BROWN: She has written her own book. She didn’t want to talk to you.

JEFFREY TOOBIN: Right.

She says she was coerced and lived in fear for every moment, and wasn’t a voluntary participant in any crimes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I note that you — you don’t want to use words like brainwashing or Stockholm syndrome. You don’t want to go there.

JEFFREY TOOBIN: No, because those terms are journalistic terms.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JEFFREY TOOBIN: They’re not medical terms.

And I don’t even think they’re useful in describing what went on in her life. I think what happened with her is, she made rational choices at each step in the process. It made sense to her, as it might make sense to other 19-year-olds, to join in. Then — and after she was arrested, it made sense for her to say, the hell with all this stuff. I want to go back — be a Hearst again.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, and just briefly, in our last minute, the sentence, as I said, was commuted by President Carter. She was pardoned by President Clinton.

You see this as an extreme case of privilege, really, for a wealthy person. And that’s what she went back to being in a sense, right?

JEFFREY TOOBIN: She is the only person in American history to receive a commutation from one president and a pardon from another.

And perhaps the most bizarre fact about this whole story is that she went back to the life she was always going to lead, sort of a wealthy socialite homemaker with a few exotic hobbies. She made a few movies, but now she raises dogs, show dogs. She’s a grandmother. And this is the life she was going to lead.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book is “American Heiress.”

Jeffrey Toobin, thank you very much.

JEFFREY TOOBIN: Thanks for having me.

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