Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt is a former Black Panther whose name became a rallying cry for the left for more than 25 years. An army veteran and munitions expert, Pratt was the “Deputy Defense Minister” for the Black Panther Party (BPP) in its heyday. He belonged to the Los Angeles chapter of the Panthers, which was formed out of one of L.A.’s most notorious street gangs.
Around the beginning of August 1970, Pratt was expelled from the Panthers as a result of his support for an anti-Huey Newton BPP faction led by Eldridge Cleaver; this more violent wing of the Party had accused Newton of “selling out” the plan for an “armed struggle.” To show their authenticity, Cleaver’s followers had formed a Black Liberation Army, which had already launched a guerrilla war in earnest in America’s cities. Pratt was the Party’s “military expert” and, as the organization’s Los Angeles leader, he had fortified its headquarters for a shootout with police. He and his BPP comrades eventually deployed machine guns and other automatic weapons in a firefight that wounded three officers and three Panthers.
When Pratt was banished from the Party, another member of the violent Cleaver faction, Jonathan Jackson, marched into a Marin County courthouse with loaded shotguns to take hostages in an episode that would cost the lives of a federal judge, Jackson himself, and two of his cohorts. Pratt had supported Jackson and his plan to use the hostages to liberate his brother George from San Quentin, where he was awaiting trial for murder.
Also in 1970, Pratt was arrested and charged with the December 1968 armed robbery and murder of Los Angeles schoolteacher Caroline Olsen. At his trial, witnesses identified Pratt as one of two men who had attempted to rob a local store shortly before Olsen was slain (also by two men, according to eyewitnesses). Olsen’s husband, who was wounded by the assailants, testified that Pratt was his wife’s killer. Pratt’s car, a GTO convertible with North Carolina license plates, was identified by witnesses at both crime scenes. His gun, a .45 automatic, was determined to be the weapon that had killed Olsen. Julius Butler, a member of the Panthers, testified that Pratt had boasted about the murder to him.
Pratt’s alibi was that he was allegedly attending a Black Panther meeting in Oakland at the time of Olsen’s murder. No Panthers stepped forward to corroborate his testimony. (Elaine Brown, Huey Newton, and Bobby Seale flatly denied it.) Pratt further claimed that his car was being used by other Panthers on the day of the murder; that the murder weapon, although it was later found in his apartment, wasn’t his; and that two other Panthers (who were already dead by the time of Pratt’s trial) had actually killed Olsen.
In 1972 Pratt was convicted of the Olsen murder. His counsel in the trial was a young Johnnie Cochran, who would eventually become widely known for his defense of O.J. Simpson in the latter’s 1995 murder trial. Cochran has written that it was the Pratt case that radicalized him and convinced him that the American justice system was systemically biased against African Americans. Cochran also believed that his failure to “play the race card” (i.e., depict his client as the victim of a racist justice system) caused him to lose the case, a mistake he vowed never to make again.
Pratt’s case soon became a cause celebre for leftists around the world. A coalition of Democratic political figures (including Willie Brown, Pete McCloskey, and Maxine Waters, among others) and Hollywood activists (such as Ed Asner and Mike Farrell) publicly rushed to his defense. In a similar spirit, a number of notable organizations sought to free Pratt, or failing that, to at least gain him a new trial. Among these groups were the California Democratic Council, the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the Maoist Internationalist Movement (which cited Pratt’s case as “proof” that the American justice system was fundamentally racist), and Refuse & Resist!.
In making his case for a re-trial, Johnnie Cochran depicted the FBI as a band of racists intent on convicting a black radical at any cost. He asserted that the prosecution was attempting to frame Pratt as political retribution because he was a Black Panther.
In 1997 Judge Everett Dickey ordered the State of California to give Pratt a new trial, despite the fact that most of the material witnesses were now dead, and that the intervening 25 years had blurred witnesses’ memories. The salient reason cited by Judge Dickey for overturning the original 1972 verdict was that the prosecution had concealed the “fact” that “[Julius Butler] had been, for at least three years before Pratt’s trial, providing information about the Black Panther Party and individuals associated with it to law enforcement agencies on a confidential basis.”
But Dickey’s premise was false. Butler had absolutely no contact with the FBI or law enforcement prior to his delivery of a sealed letter to Sergeant Duwayne Rice of the Los Angeles Police Department on August 10, 1969, eight months after the Olsen murder and less than two years before the trial. The letter’s identification of Geronimo Pratt as Olsen’s killer was available to the jury and was a centerpiece of the court proceeding, a fact that was not even addressed in Dickey’s opinion. Moreover, Butler’s testimony at the original trial was entirely consistent with the information contained in the incriminating letter and with his behavior throughout the case.
In Pratt’s new trial, Elaine Brown and Bobby Seale changed their testimony entirely, this time in Pratt’s favor. In June 1997, Pratt was released from prison on $25,000 bail. He was hailed by the left as an American Nelson Mandela and was offered numerous book and movie deals.
Reflecting in September 1997 on Pratt’s turn of fortune, social commentator David Horowitz wrote: “Why hasn’t justice prevailed in this matter? Why is a clearly guilty individual free? The answer lies in the climate of the times, in which the testimony of officers of the law have become more readily impeachable than the testimony of criminals. As in the O.J. Simpson trial, the appeals process in the Pratt case has been turned by Johnnie Cochran into a class action libel against the FBI, the police, the prosecution and its chief witness. And as in the Simpson case, Johnnie Cochran’s fictional melodrama has won out over the politically incorrect truth.”
In September 1999 the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU-SC) reported that Pratt would file a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, five retired LAPD officers, seven former FBI agents, and Julius Butler. Pratt claimed that those defendants had conspired to convict him. “Geronimo Pratt’s fight for justice will continue,” said ACLU-SC Chief Counsel Michael Small. In addition to the ACLU, Pratt was also represented by Johnnie Cochran and Stuart Hanlon, a San Francisco civil rights lawyer who had been part of Pratt’s legal team for more than 25 years.
In April 2000, a federal judge approved a $4.5 million settlement of the Pratt lawsuit.