Patty Hearst was the victim of one of the most bizarre kidnappings in American history. But more than 40 years later, questions remain — was she a victim or a terrorist? CNN Chief Legal Analyst Jeffrey Toobin, an executive producer of the series and author of a book about Hearst, takes you inside CNN’s new six-part original series, The Radical Story of Patty Hearst.
Turner: Congratulations on the new show. For people who are too young to know much about her, tell us briefly who Patty Hearst is and what happened to her?
Jeffrey: Patty Hearst was the wealthy granddaughter of the most famous newspaper publisher in history – William Randolph Hearst. In February 1974, she was kidnapped by a mysterious radical group called the Symbionese Liberation Army. Most shockingly, a few weeks later, she announced that she had joined the SLA and went on the run with them for a year and a half, committing a series of crimes along the way. She was later arrested and claimed that she had been brainwashed. She was convicted but later had her sentence commuted by President Carter and then pardoned by President Clinton.
T: You wrote a book about Patty Hearst a couple of years ago. Why were you drawn to Patty’s story?
Jeffrey: I wrote “American Heiress” in part because it was a window to a wild time in American history where terrorism was rampant, but also because it’s a classic mystery story: did Patty Hearst really join with her captors or was she forced to do so?
T: Let’s talk about the series. I know it’s six episodes, running two episodes each, back-to-back, over three Sunday nights. Is there a premise or an angle that it takes? Tell us about the journey you’ll take viewers on.
Jeffrey: It’s a journalistic look that takes the story in order, which includes a series of bizarre and violent events, including three bank robberies, a shootout on a Los Angeles street, and the biggest gun battle involving the police in American history.
T: Who was interviewed for the series? How did you convince them to be a part of this series?
Jeffrey: The most riveting person is Bill Harris, who was one of the kidnappers, and who spoke in public in detail for the first time since the kidnapping.
T: What do you want viewers to walk away with after they finish watching this series?
Jeffrey: That we were fair to everyone -- and that this is one hell of a story.
T: Tell us about the podcast you’re doing with Brian Stelter about the series.
Jeffrey: Brian and I did a podcast about the FX series based on my book “The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson.” We had fun, and listeners responded, so we thought we’d do it again.
T: What was it like seeing a subject you’ve spent so much time researching and writing about come to life as on a TV screen?
Jeffrey: It was a great demonstration of the strengths of both mediums. In my book, I could go into detail about the backgrounds of the individuals and the historical forces. But there is no substitute for the immediacy of video – seeing the gun fights, and hearing from the protagonists. I thought I knew the story well, but I learned plenty working with the team on the documentary.
T: Are you working on any new books? What’s next for you?
Jeffrey: Mostly, I’m trying to keep up with the extraordinary torrent of news coming from the Trump Administration. I’m planning on writing a book on the Russia scandals and the Mueller investigation – but I need an ending!