Judge grants Geronimo Pratt new trial
By Barbara Jean Hope, People's Weekly World, 7 June 1997
On May 29 former Black Panther Party member Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt won the right to a new trial.
As a victim of the FBI's COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence Program) which targeted groups such as the Black Panthers, Pratt was convicted of the December 1968 slaying of a Santa Monica school teacher, Caroline Olsen.
He was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison and had been turned down for parole 16 times, the last time in March 1996.
Pratt has steadfastly maintained his innocence and has testified repeatedly that he was not in Los Angeles when the murder occurred, but was in Oakland at Black Panther headquarters.
Orange County (Calif.) Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey ruled in a 13-page decision that Pratt's 1972 murder conviction was influenced heavily by testimony of an informant who had infiltrated the Black Panther Party.
The conviction was also seen as political retribution against the Black Panthers. Judge Dickey also ruled that the prosecution wrongly suppressed information about the informant, Julius "Julio" Butler, which could have swayed jurors to render a different verdict.
Said Dickey, "The evidence which was withheld about Julius Butler and his activities could have put the whole case in a different light, and failure to timely disclose it undermines confidence in the verdict."
Dickey ordered Pratt released from state prison and placed in the custody of the L.A. County Sheriff for a new trial "or other appropriate disposition."
The L.A. County District Attorney's office, which was opposed to a retrial, issued a statement immediately after the verdict was read, saying that no decision had been made on whether to appeal the decision.
Dickey's decision came after a hearing that was seen as being the "end of the line" legally for Pratt. To quote Johnnie Cochran, one of Pratt's attorneys, "[The hearing] is perhaps our last and best chance to right a wrong."
Cochran represented Pratt in the 1972 trial as well. The hearing was prompted by discovery of documents confirming that Butler, the chief witness against Pratt, was a police and FBI informant who had infiltrated the Black Panthers.
Butler was also an informant for the L.A. District Attorney's office for more than two years before his testimony on behalf of the DA's office was used to convict Pratt.
Although the overturning of Pratt's conviction is a victory, let us also be mindful of the fact that corruption in the criminal justice system has cost these prisoners - includnig Mumia Abu-Jamal - and their families years of their lives, years that have been filled with suffering - years that can never be returned to them.
Corruption in the U.S. criminal justice system, which racially and ideologically targets its victims, continues. There are more than 1.6 million people behind bars in the U.S. at this moment. How many of them have also been railroaded?
Peoples Weekly World
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