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Four former members of the radical Symbionese Liberation Army pleaded guilty Thursday to second-degree murder in a deal with prosecutors to end their nearly 30-year-old case. But the plea bargain hinges on whether Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully and Superior Court Judge Thomas Cecil can get the state Board of Prison Terms to abide by the agreement. That’s not necessarily a slam dunk, given the Oct. 16 decision by the board to deliver a much longer sentence to one of the defendants — Sara Jane Olson — in another SLA case in Los Angeles. Olson’s lawyers had entered a plea deal under the assumption she would receive a five-year term. The board sentenced her to 14 years. Under the agreement in the Sacramento case, People v. Montague, 02-00525, each of the four defendants would receive a guaranteed sentence of six to eight years. Defendants Olson, William Harris, Harris’ ex-wife Emily Montague and Olson’s brother-in-law Michael Bortin were charged with murder and firearms enhancements for the shotgun death of Myrna Lee Opsahl, a customer at Crocker Bank in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael on April 21, 1975. In most circumstances, the Board of Prison Terms has no say in how long prisoners must serve, having lost that power in 1977 under a U.S. Supreme Court decision. But because the murder occurred prior to the court ruling, it could assert its old powers. As part of the plea, Scully and Cecil agreed to urge the Board of Prison Terms to stick to the bargain. If the board invokes its power to review serious offenders and increases the sentence of any one of the defendants, all bets are off and the case would again move toward trial. “If five means 14, six means who knows?” said Alexander Reisman of San Francisco’s Bourdon & Reisman, which represents defendant William Harris. At this point, it’s unclear how much sway the Sacramento DA could have with the board, but defense attorneys didn’t seem worried. “I think between the Opsahl family, the DA’s office and judge all saying this is sufficient time, the Board of Prison Terms would be hard-pressed to undo the findings of the agreement,” Reisman said. J. Tony Serra, the San Francisco lawyer who represented Olson in the Los Angeles case, said he couldn’t get similar provisions during Olson’s plea bargain there. He now represents Bortin in the Sacramento case. Olson is appealing the extra time handed down by the board and awaits the board’s written finding. If administrative appeals fail, she would fight the board in court if necessary. The plea bargain also required the defendants to publicly apologize to Opsahl’s family. Beginning with Montague, who fired the fatal blast, each defendant made a brief speech. Montague faced the judge and cried as she spoke: “As I turned toward Mrs. Opsahl … the gun I was carrying discharged accidentally. I was horrified at the time and was devastated until this day.” Harris and Olson made an effort to turn around and face the victim’s family members as they spoke. All but Olson, who was driven up from the women’s prison in Chowchilla and sat shackled in court in a yellow shirt and bright orange prison pants, called the shooting “accidental.” The announcement of the plea agreement came after several days of denials that a bargain was in the works and “no comments” from lawyers on both sides of the case. Defendants and their attorneys spent much of Wednesday in a closed session in Cecil’s court. During lunch break, an agitated Harris charged out of the courtroom and away from his co-defendants, shrugging off attempts by the other attorneys to comfort him. Prior to that, Harris could be seen through the glass door of Cecil’s courtroom, which was closed to the public, shaking his fist and briefly shouting. On Thursday, Harris’ attorney, Charles Bourdon, said Harris — who worked as an investigator for Montague’s attorney, San Francisco solo Stuart Hanlon — has the most experience with the justice system and “that’s why he appeared to lead the discussion” Wednesday. Bourdon said his client wasn’t upset by the plea bargain, saying everyone involved was under “tremendous pressure.”

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