Former Panther Leader to Get New Trial
On March 13, after 26 years in prison, 14 denied requests for parole, four unsuccessful appeals to higher courts, three years' waiting while the Los Angeles District Attorney "studied" a report indicating his innocence, and a three week delay because the assistant DA assigned to the case had a stroke, Elmer Geronimo Pratt may finally have his day in court.The case is not a simple one. In a sense it starts thousands of miles away from the crime that put Pratt in jail, early on the morning of December 8, 1969, when Chicago police raided an apartment and killed Fred Hampton, head of the Illinois Black Panther Party, and his deputy, Mark Clark.They were able to shoot Hampton through a wall because they had a detailed map of the apartment provided by an FBI agent -- who had also made sure Hampton would be on the other side of that wall by drugging his food the night before.Four nights later, Los Angeles police raided Panther headquarters in their city, but the Panthers withstood their best efforts (including a bomb dropped on the roof of the building). Frustrated, police arrested Geronimo Pratt, the Panther's Deputy Minister of Defense, on a trumped-up charge that was later dismissed. Pratt, a decorated Vietnam vet, had used his military training to successfully fortify the building.The Black Panthers were hardly a gospel choir planning a picnic, but the violence directed toward them, much of it orchestrated by the FBI, was hardly deserved. Most chapters were infiltrated with police agents, many of whom earned their keep by inventing "information" that justified a police attack or helped convict people of crimes they did not commit.It was the testimony of an FBI informant that put Geronimo Pratt behind bars, convicted of the 1968 murder of Caroline Olsen in a holdup that netted $18.Since his conviction, FBI wiretap files that could have corroborated Pratt's claim that he was in Oakland on the night of the Olsen shooting have disappeared. Information has surfaced showing that two eye witnesses originally identified someone other than Pratt. There is evidence that the FBI, LAPD and the District Attorney cooperated surreptitiously to put Pratt behind bars, and that the prosecutor based much of his strategy on information provided by an informer planted by the FBI on Pratt's defense team.In the end, however, the case swings on the testimony of one man -- Julius Butler.In 1969, Pratt was named Deputy Minister of Defense of the Los Angeles branch, in effect, chief security officer. Butler wanted the job, saying his work as an LA Deputy Sheriff, qualified him. But Pratt was chosen instead, as Panther leaders thought his recent war experiences more relevant to the organization.Seven years after Pratt's conviction, FBI files were made public showing that Butler had more than 30 contacts with the FBI, and had also been an informant for the LAPD.Pratt, one of those who suspected Butler was a police informant from the first, kicked him out of the party. Two days later Butler met with Duwayne Rice, his LAPD handler, and gave him an envelope marked "to be opened in case of my death." The moment the envelope changed hands, Butler walked away and two FBI agents confronted Rice and demanded the letter. Rice, thinking the envelope contained a personal message, refused. It took the FBI two years to get the letter. At that point they turned it over to the District Attorney.In the letter, Butler claimed that Pratt had confessed to committing the hold-up robbery that killed Caroline Olsen and critically wounded her husband. Rice testified in a recent hearing that he realized Butler had asked to meet on the street (they usually met in Rice's apartment) because he wanted to get the letter into FBI hands.At Pratt's trial, Butler was the chief prosecution witness. Pratt's attorney, the then-relatively-unknown Johnnie Cochran, asked Butler if he was a police informant. Butler denied it under oath.In 1979, Pratt's attorneys received copies of previously confidential FBI reports confirming that Butler had lied on the stand. They have been trying to confront him with this evidence ever since, but it was January of this year before they were finally able to face him at a hearing held to determine if Pratt should get a new trial.The informant who fingered Fred Hampton later committed suicide, but Butler has prospered. With the help of a judge who reduced a past felony conviction to a misdemeanor, Butler was able to become an attorney. He now lives in a very secure apartment complex, works in a community law practice, and is an officer in Los Angeles' oldest and most prestigious black churches.Cochran could not get Butler to agree he had committed perjury, but Butler did admit he had given information to the FBI.The hearing will be held in Anaheim, to avoid the possibility of asking a judge to hand down a ruling that would seem critical of a colleague. Stuart Hanlon, the San Francisco attorney who has represented Pratt since the 1972 conviction thinks the judge will rule in their favor. "The judge is thorough, has read everything, and seems to be fair."If Hanlon is right, Geronimo Pratt's 25-year struggle to exonerate himself may finally be successful.