)Date: Sun, 20 Jul 1997 17:41:15 -0700 (PDT)
After Nearly 30 Years, a Black Panther Case Challenges Los Angeles
By Don Terry, New York Times, 20 July 1997
LOS ANGELES -- After 10 days of deliberations, the jury said guilty and the convicted man jumped to his feet. "You're wrong," he shouted, that summer day in 1972. "I didn't kill that woman."
He told his lawyer he had been framed for the murder by the authorities and by a police "snitch" called Julio, all because he dared to stand up for his people as the leader of the Black Panther Party in Southern California.
The lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, thought his 24-year-old client, a Vietnam War hero, was being paranoid. After all, this was the United States of America.
"I thought it was going to be fair," Cochran said recently of the trial. "I was naive."
The sentence was life. A quarter of a century later, the young man is long lost. He has been replaced by a bald 49-year-old who was recently walking through the Los Angeles International Airport, on his way to his hometown to hug his mother, when a woman rushed up to him, waving a pen. She wanted his autograph.
"I'm not a movie star," the man protested. "I'm a revolutionary."
On June 10, after spending nearly 30 years behind bars for the murder he has always insisted he did not commit, Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt was released on bail, ending, for the moment, a long and determined struggle by many people to win his freedom.
Pratt's conviction in the murder, that of a teacher, had just been reversed by a judge, who said the prosecution had suppressed evidence that might have kept him from being convicted.
Pratt could still face a new trial, even though the husband of the victim who identified Pratt has died and Julius "Julio" Butler, the man who said Pratt had confessed to the killing, was labeled by the judge who overturned the conviction as a liar and a government informer with a grudge against Pratt.
But whatever the ultimate outcome, the case has revived memories of a period that some in California and the nation might prefer to forget, a time of bitterness and bloodshed as an undeclared war raged between the Black Panther Party and the police.
Now, today's generation of politicians, particularly Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti, are being forced to grapple with 25-year-old issues. The events have made Pratt a sudden celebrity and disgraced Butler, who in the ensuing years had risen to become a lawyer and a lay leader of one of Los Angeles' most influential black churches.
And, the case has reunited two of the biggest names -- Cochran and Garcetti -- from the case of O.J. Simpson. For Garcetti, the Pratt case presents new pressures and a new set of decisions to make, decisions shrouded in questions of justice, politics and race.
Garcetti's office, which says it is convinced that Pratt is guilty, is appealing the reversal. If the appeal fails, he may seek a new trial.
There is circumstantial evidence: Pratt's car was used in the robbery and a gun to which he and many other Panther Party members had access was identified by the prosecution as the murder weapon. But few legal experts familiar with the case expect the district attorney can prevail.
"Too many questions have been raised now," said Laurie L. Levenson, associate dean of the Loyola University Law School in Los Angeles. "But it's very difficult for the DA to drop this case because Garcetti and people working for him honestly believe that Geronimo Pratt is a murderer, and I think they are a bit stunned about there being unethical behavior in the first trial."
H. Eric Schockman, professor of political science at the University of Southern California, said: "Garcetti would be far diminished in the eyes of the political elite of this state by giving up on this cause. His ambition in this is more political than it is of a legal base."
Several prominent residents have urged Garcetti to drop the matter. "Even if Geronimo Pratt had committed the crime, which he did not, he's already served 27 years in prison," said Danny Bakewell, chairman of the Brotherhood Crusade, a black advocacy group. "Garcetti should be man enough to say, 'Enough is enough.' "
The Origin: U.S. Warrior Turns To Domestic Ills
Unlike the Simpson case of murder and celebrity, the Pratt case, to his supporters, has been about murder and politics, democracy and dissent. Pratt and his supporters have always contended that it was his politics and not his deeds that put him in some of the toughest prisons in the state for so long.
"The Geronimo Pratt case," said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League, "is one of the most compelling and painful examples of a political assassination on an African-American activist."
Pratt arrived in Los Angeles from his native Louisiana in 1968, a decorated veteran with two tours of duty in Vietnam, having left the Army as a sergeant.
It was a time when the Black Panther Party, whose members never numbered more than several thousand around the country, was at its height. The group mixed black nationalism and socialism, shotguns and free breakfast programs for children, medical clinics, free schools, law books and revolutionary rhetoric about power coming from the barrel of a gun. Members included ex-convicts, former gang members and college students.
The Panthers were also near the top of the long list of enemies meticulously maintained by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The director said the group was a threat to national security.
By 1969, Pratt, admired for charisma and warrior spirit, which earned him his nickname from fellow party members, had become the leader of the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party. He had also become a major concern of the bureau's counterintelligence program, a campaign of domestic spying, psychological warfare and dirty tricks known as Cointelpro.
The program dogged the lives of a wide cross section of American citizens, from actress Jean Seberg to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., from 1956 to 1971.
In June 1970, the FBI sent a report on Pratt, along with his picture, to FBI offices in New York, New Haven, Atlanta, Chicago, Sacramento, Calif., San Diego and San Francisco, "in view of the position held by captioned individual in the Black Panther Party."
The report went on to say "that constant consideration is given to the possibility of utilization of counterintelligence measures with efforts being directed toward neutralizing Pratt as an effective BPP functionary."
Pratt's lawyers assert that the bureau's interest in Pratt led to his being charged with the killing of the teacher, Caroline Olsen, in a robbery in Santa Monica, Calif.
Two examples of the conflict between law-enforcement authorities and the Black Panthers occurred in December 1969. In Chicago, using a floor plan supplied by a government informer, police raided an apartment and killed two Black Panther leaders, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark.
Four days later, in Los Angeles, several Black Panthers embarrassed the police by holding off dozens of officers and the department's SWAT team in a four-hour shootout at the group's headquarters. Pratt, who was not in the building, had been responsible for fortifying it. Three officers and six Panthers were wounded.
The Slaying: $18 Didn't Satisfy Two Holdup Men
Pratt had been in Los Angeles a couple of months when Mrs. Olsen and her husband, Kenneth, also a teacher, walked onto a tennis court in Santa Monica's Lincoln Park. It was shortly after 8 p.m. on Dec. 18, 1968.
Mr. Olsen, 31, put some coins into a meter box to turn on the court lights. Then he said he noticed two young black men with guns striding toward him.
Police said the men took all of Mrs. Olsen's money from her purse, $18.
"This ain't enough," one said, according to police, and ordered the couple to "lie down and pray."
Soon, the bullets started flying, hitting Mr. Olsen five times and his wife twice. A witness told police that the two men had fled in a red-and-white convertible.
Mr. Olsen recovered from his wounds. Mrs. Olsen, 27, died 11 days later. The couple had a 7-year-old daughter, Lisa, who said recently: "It has not been easy for me. This case has never been quiet, from age 7 to 36. It keeps dragging me back."
The Case: A Secretive Letter, An Indictment
There were no indictments in the slaying until two years later, after the authorities got their hands on a letter Butler said he had written Aug. 10, 1969. At that time, he had just been expelled from the Panthers by Pratt, who suspected him of being a police informer.
"Of all the people in the Black Panther Party," said Roland Freeman, a former party member, "Geronimo was the most effective. Julio wanted to be the leader, but the rank and file wanted Geronimo."
Butler, who at 36 was much older than the majority of the party members and had been wounded as a marine in Korea, said he had written the letter because he feared for his life from the Panthers. The letter, he said at the time, was his insurance policy, and he wrote on the envelope that it should be opened only "in the event of my death."
In the nine-page letter, Butler told of threats against him by party members, and on the eighth page he wrote that Pratt had bragged to him that he had committed the tennis court murder.
Supposedly for safekeeping, Butler gave the letter to a friend, police Sgt. DuWayne Rice. Moments after Butler handed him the letter on a street corner, Rice said, two FBI agents ran up to him and demanded the letter, saying it was evidence.
Rice, now retired, refused to hand it over. The agents went to Rice's superiors, who he said forced him to surrender the letter to police department officials months later. When Rice said he asked the agents how they had known about the letter, they said that Butler had told them about it.
In October 1970, police unsealed Butler's letter. Two months after that, Pratt was indicted in the murder of Mrs. Olsen.
The Trial: Vital Information Was Suppressed
Pratt has always contended that he was in Oakland, Calif., attending a Panther Party meeting at the home of David Hilliard, the group's chief of staff, when the murder took place.
Pratt said he had made several telephone calls to Los Angeles, calls that should have been noted in FBI files, his lawyers said, because the bureau had tapped the party's headquarters on Central Avenue here. But no such logs of telephone taps have been found.
A retired bureau agent who worked in the FBI's office in this period, M. Wesley Swearingen, said that in his 25 years with the agency he had never heard of surveillance logs being misplaced.
Since his retirement from the bureau a few years ago, Swearingen has been saying of Pratt, "He was framed." Swearingen has given sworn statements on his view to Pratt's lawyers.
At the time of the trial, neither the defense nor the jury knew that Butler was an informer for the authorities, said Judge Everett W. Dickey of the California Superior Court in Orange County, who overturned the verdict. The information could have changed the course of the trial, Dickey ruled.
While Olsen identified Pratt as one of the gunmen, neither the defense nor the jury knew that Olsen had earlier identified another man as the killer of his wife, even though the man had been in jail at the time of the crime. Olsen died of natural causes in 1980.
The getaway car used in the killing had belonged to Pratt, but it was also used by more than two dozen other Panthers and hangers-on, including Butler.
The prosecution said a .45-caliber pistol that it identified as the murder weapon was recovered from a house in a police raid in early 1969 in which 17 Panther members, including Pratt and Butler, were rounded up. Pratt, who was not inside the house, was not armed when he was arrested.
The police also could not match the gun to the bullets that had killed Mrs. Olsen. Butler testified that Pratt had also confessed to having changed the gun barrel.
Jeanne Rook Hamilton, who was 22 when she was selected to sit on the Pratt jury, said recently: "We tried to be hung two times, but the judge said to go back and deliberate some more. But if we had known about Butler's background, there's no way Pratt would have been convicted. I never really liked Butler. He always reminded me of a used car salesman. He was slick."
The Missing Evidence: Discovering File, Influencing a Judge
Butler, who became a lawyer and a pillar of one of the city's most influential black churches, the First African Methodist Episcopal, has declined to discuss the case. He has always maintained that he was not an informer, even though FBI records show he had been, from 1969 to 1972.
Then, in an internal review of the case in the early 1990s, the Los Angeles district attorney's office found in its own records a card with Butler's name on it and turned the card over to the defense.
The date on the card showed that it had been in the files since six months before Pratt's trial in 1972. It proved to be the missing piece Pratt needed to go home for the first time since he was arrested in 1970. Four previous attempts by Pratt to win a new trial had been rejected. He had been turned down for parole 16 times.
"Except for the card," said David L. Bernstein, a defense investigator, who has worked on the case since 1979 without fee, "we had 90 percent of the evidence way back in 1980. I was sure Geronimo was going home then. This time around, I didn't have much hope."
There appeared to be good reason for the pessimism. Dickey, who had been assigned the case, was a conservative Republican in conservative Orange County who had been named to the bench in 1970 by Gov. Ronald Reagan.
"That's another irony of Geronimo's case," said Stuart Hanlon, who has represented Pratt without charge for most of the last 25 years. "We have been in front of many so- called liberal judges who were afraid to act. Judge Dickey is a conservative man, but a fair judge. He obeyed the law and that's unusual in such a politicized case."
Dickey wrote, "It is the court's conclusion that this was not a strong case for the prosecution without the testimony of Butler, and certainly not an overwhelming case in any event."
Hours after Pratt was released, Butler resigned from the board of his church.
The Future: Cementing Ties In Legal Quandary
Pratt says he would welcome a new trial.
"But I shouldn't be the defendant," he said in a recent interview. "The government should be."
Pratt said a new trial would open the coffin lid on the corpse of Cointelpro and the harm it had caused.
Pratt considers himself to have been a political prisoner, and at almost every opportunity, he mentions the names of other inmates he says are victims of politics, including Leonard Peltier, the American Indian advocate, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Philadelphia radio journalist and Black Panther.
"I haven't forgotten my brothers just because I'm out," Pratt said. "I'm not going to lie to you, prison bent my back a little, but it didn't bend my principles."
Pratt said he had never had much faith in the American justice system being fair to a black radical. But he still believed that sooner or later he would be released from prison, he said, because "I knew truth would prevail."
His wife, Ashaki, whom he married in prison in 1976, said, "We just didn't think it would take this long."
A few years after they were married, the Pratts had a daughter, Shona, conceived on a conjugal visit.
The couple said they talked about Pratt getting out of prison in time to watch Shona take her first steps.
Shona, 18, recently gave birth to a baby girl, and Mrs. Pratt said, "We're so thankful that he got out in time to watch his granddaughter start walking."
Pratt was also able to return to his home town of Morgan City, La., and see his 93-year-old mother, Eunice.
And in the Oakland Bay area where the Pratts live, he was able to watch his son, Hiroji, 14, stride across a stage and graduate from eighth grade. Hiroji wore a suit that had belonged to Pratt's godson, the slain rapper Tupac Shakur. The rapper died on Pratt's 49th birthday, his 25th in prison.
"What causes me a lot of pain," Pratt said, "is knowing that if I had gotten out 15 or even 10 years ago, I could have done so much for my kids. Now, that they're grown and Tupac is dead. You can't catch up, You can't ever get those years back."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company