From email@example.com Sat Nov 4 11:09:20 2000
Date: Fri, 3 Nov 2000 22:34:08 -0600 (CST)
From: firstname.lastname@example.org (Firefly192)
Subject: Geronimo Pratt: ’Last Man Standing’
Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of
by Jack Olsen
Doubleday & Co. 500 pp.
A few years ago, most people reacted skeptically whenever I started to talk about the latest wrongful-conviction case that had come to my attention. There are too many safeguards in the system for wrongful convictions to occur, my acquaintances said. Police, prosecutors, juries and judges would never send innocent men and women to prison, they said.
Author Jack Olsen has known for a long time that wrongful convictions occur more often than generally acknowledged. In 1991, he published Predator: Rape, Madness and Injustice in Seattle. The book revolved around the wrongful conviction of Steve Titus for rape, and how the doggedness of Seattle Times reporter Paul Henderson led to Titus’ freedom. Predator was the 24th book by Olsen, a Seattle-area writer who turned true-crime stories into an art form. . . .
With Last Man Standing, Olsen returns to the wrongful-conviction theme, at a juncture when it has become accepted as the conventional wisdom. His return to the theme is welcome: Predator was a mighty good book, but Last Man Standing is a great book, as compelling and thorough as any wrongful-conviction book I have read—and I have read most of them.
Olsen chose a high-profile case for his new book—the story of
Geronimo Pratt had been in the news since shortly after
the 1968 murder of a woman during a robbery on a Santa Monica, Calif.,
public tennis court. Because Pratt, a decorated Vietnam veteran who
moved to California after a more-or-less idyllic Louisiana bayou
upbringing, was widely known as a leader of the Black Panther Party,
his name stuck in the minds of news consumers everywhere.
Despite the high-profile nature of the murder case, little had been written in-depth. As a result, Olsen’s book goes where no other journalist had gone.
The book opens during 1975, in medias res. Pratt is incarcerated at San Quentin, protesting his innocence despite five years in solitary confinement as a convicted murderer. Law student Stuart Hanlon is visiting Pratt on the recommendation of a friend. Hanlon senses that perhaps Pratt is innocent. So Hanlon calls on the lawyer who defended Pratt—the accomplished but not yet famous (as in O.J. Simpson) Johnnie Cochran. Cochran considers his loss in the Pratt trial the most devastating of his career.
At the meeting, Cochran tells Hanlon that Pratt
is a victim of a
frame-up that goes so high it’s scary. I wouldn’t be
surprised if the FBI was involved. Wondering about the
conspiratorial tone of that statement, Hanlon asks,
the proof? Cochran replies,
That’s the problem.
Olsen vividly tells the story of the collaboration between the polished African-American lawyer Cochran and the unpolished Jewish-Irish lawyer Hanlon as they work year-in, year-out, decade upon decade, to free Pratt, one of the most remarkable individuals they have ever encountered.
After placing his readers at the 1975 meetings between Pratt and Hanlon, then Hanlon and Cochran, Olsen jumps back to the convict’s upbringing in Morgan City, La., 99 miles from New Orleans. Olsen crams a mini-biography into a few chapters before detailing the murder, the questionable law-enforcement investigation, the indictment, the trial, the imprisonment and the decades of prison torture that probably would have broken just about anybody other than Pratt.
Although readers know that Pratt will eventually be exonerated and freed from prison, the suspense in the book is close to unbearable: How can the prosecutors continue to insist that Pratt killed the woman? How can Pratt prove innocence from a prison cell? Will the prison authorities conveniently allow him to die behind bars? Will Pratt’s loving siblings, mother and friends crack because of the ordeal? Will any judge, anywhere, even listen to the new evidence of actual innocence?
Some readers might say the book ends happily—Pratt is at liberty, and wins a large monetary settlement from the city of Los Angeles as well as the FBI. But these cases never really have happy endings: Lives are ruined, while the actual criminals remain at large to kill or rape again.
Meanwhile, those responsible for the wrongful convictions, especially the prosecutors, are hardly ever punished. Maybe Olsen’s book will help generate the outrage to fix a system that convicts far too many innocent individuals, then refuses to admit error.