I first heard the name Geronimo Pratt in the early '70s during a late night conversation with Huey Newton, the minister of defense of the Black Panther Party, now deceased. Pratt was the leader of the Los Angeles branch of the Party and had been convicted of a robbery-murder that occurred on December 18, 1968, when a young elementary school teacher named Caroline Olsen, and her husband, Kenneth, were accosted by two gunmen on a Santa Monica tennis court. They were ordered to lie down and give up their cash and jewelry, which they did. But, as the predators left the scene, one of the gunmen emptied his .45 caliber weapon into their prone bodies, wounding Kenneth Olsen and killing Caroline. Nearly two years later, Geronimo Pratt was charged with the murder and ultimately convicted despite the efforts of Johnnie Cochran, then an unknown young attorney on the make.
It was not just the murder conviction that made Pratt a figure of interest. Other Panthers had run afoul of the law. Pratt was special because Newton and the Party had hung him out to dry. Even though he was a deputy minister of defense and ran the Los Angeles Party, there were no "Free Geronimo" rallies organized in his behalf, as there had been for Huey himself. In fact, Huey and the other Panther leaders—Bobby Seale, David Hilliard and Elaine Brown—flatly denied Pratt's alibi, that he was at a Panther meeting in Oakland at the time of the murder, and this, as much as any other fact, sealed Pratt's fate.
There were reasons why Huey would be unsympathetic. Pratt had been expelled from the Panthers shortly after the murder of Caroline Olsen, as a result of his support for an anti-Newton Black Panther faction led by Eldridge Cleaver, the more violent wing of the Party that had accused Newton of "selling out" the "armed struggle." To show their authenticity, Cleaver's followers had formed a Black Liberation Army, which had already launched a guerilla war in earnest in America's cities. Pratt was the Party's "military expert" and as the Los Angeles leader had fortified its headquarters for a shootout with police, deploying machine guns and other automatic weapons in a firefight which wounded three officers and three Panthers. At the beginning of August 1970, when Pratt was kicked out of the Party, another member of this violent faction, Jonathan Jackson, marched into a Marin County courthouse with loaded shotguns to take hostages in an episode that cost the lives of a federal judge, Jackson, 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 waiting trial for murder.
The evening Huey and I talked about Geronimo, he explained to me that Pratt, a decorated Vietnam veteran, was also a psychotic (the word he used) "crazy man," who had not only committed the Santa Monica murder, but actually enjoyed violence for its own sake. Huey attributed Pratt's aberrant behavior to his war experience, although he had not met Pratt prior to his military discharge.
And that was the way it remained for me for twenty-five years, when I was discovering that Huey himself was a cold-blooded killer and the Panthers a political gang that had committed many robberies, arsons and murders. By the time Johnnie Cochran brought the case of Geronimo Pratt before a national public he hadn't gotten the first time around, I was almost ready myself to give Huey's enemy the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps some other Panther had killed Caroline Olsen and used Pratt's car in committing the crime, as his supporters maintained. Perhaps the murder weapon, a distinctive .45 caliber model used in the military and identified by several witnesses as belonging to Pratt had actually belonged to someone else as he maintained.
But there was a detail from that conversation with Huey that I could never forget and yet never quite believe either. Pratt was so crazy, Newton told me, that "he couldn't get an erection unless he was holding a knife in his hand." This detail would come up again in the aftermath of Pratt's release last June by Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett Dickey, who agreed with Cochran that the prosecution had wrongfully concealed from the original jury the information that their key witness, a former Panther named Julius Butler, was a police and FBI "informant." It was Butler who had identified the .45 as Geronimo's weapon and—even more damning—had claimed that Pratt boasted to him that he had killed Caroline Olsen. It was Butler—and the adroit use Cochran made of him—that led Pratt to be granted a new trial and be hailed by Johnnie Cochran and a compliant press as a "hero" and "victim of injustice."
In the tapestry of Johnnie Cochran's political career, the case of Geronimo Pratt turns out to be a central thread. A young Johnnie Cochran, just setting out on his career in the law, was Pratt's counsel in the original trial. By his own account, it was the Pratt case that "radicalized" him, persuading him that America's criminal justice system was unfair to black men. It showed him, too, that his failure to play the "race card" had led to the conviction of his client. He resolved never to make this mistake again. When Cochran later took on the legal battle that made him famous, he told O.J. Simpson, "I'm not going to let happen to you what happened to Geronimo Pratt." And after getting Simpson off, he reiterated the solemn promise to the imprisoned Pratt that he would never rest "until you are free."
Johnnie Cochran made the two cases into the legal equivalent of Siamese twins. For Mark Fuhrman and a racist police conspiracy acting to plant evidence to frame a popular black hero, substitute Julius Butler and an FBI-sponsored "Cointelpro" conspiracy to frame a political hero who also was black. As in the Simpson case, the indictment of law enforcement as conspiratorial and racist was the heart of the Cochran appeal that freed Geronimo Pratt. Of course, the public climate had been so turned against law enforcement by Johnnie Cochran and others, that all Cochran had to show was that Julius Butler, the prosecution's chief witness, had had contacts with the police prior to the trial, in order to taint the verdict. In playing the race card for Simpson he had also put it on the table for Pratt.
It was this use of the race card, along with that odd comment Huey had made to me over twenty years earlier, that led me to inquire into the decision to give Geronimo Pratt a "new trial" and thus—since the only eyewitness to the murder, Caroline Olsen's husband, was also now dead—to free him.
To understand the flimsy construction of the argument that prompted Judge Dickey's decision, one needs to look at the court's lengthy rejection of an almost identical appeal Pratt's lawyers made in 1980. At that time, Pratt's petition was supported by a blue ribbon amici curiae list including Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Congressman Pete McCloskey, current San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, the ACLU, the president of the California Democratic Council, and the chair of the Coalition to Free Geronimo Pratt. The central claim made by Pratt's defenders then, has not changed in nearly twenty years:
|"A totally innocent man has languished in [prison] since mid-1972, . . . He was sent there as the result of a case which was deliberately contrived by agents of our state and federal governments . . . . [His] conviction was the result of a joint effort by state and federal governments to neutralize and discredit him because of his membership in the militant Black Panther Party. . . ."
This time the nation's press, which—as former New Republic editor Michael Kelley recently observed—still construes its journalistic obligation to be institutionalizing the New Left version of the '60s, bought this argument whole. But the facts, summarized in the earlier opinion from the court record, reveal this argument to be fiction. In a striking vindication of Kelley's judgment, all the information that follows was easily available to reporters, but none of it made its way into the reams of newsprint that described and celebrated Pratt's release.
In Judge Dickey's opinion and the press reportage, Julius Butler is defamed as a "police informer." But it was not until August 10, 1969, about seven months and three weeks after the murder of Caroline Olsen, and more than a month after Butler had been kicked out of the Black Panther Party, that Butler made his first voluntary contact with any law enforcement official. He met with Sergeant Duwayne Rice of the Los Angeles Police Department and gave him a sealed envelope. The envelope was addressed to Rice and had the words "Only to be opened in the event of my death" printed on the outside. Butler did not reveal the contents of the envelope to Rice. The envelope was then put in a locked safe, where it remained for 14 months after this meeting, while the murderer was on the loose.
When Butler's envelope was finally opened, 14 months after his meeting with Rice, and 22 months after the murder, the letter inside was for the first time read by police. It described a factional struggle in the Black Panther Party and said that the writer was fearful because of threats on his life made by Geronimo Pratt and other Panther leaders, including Roger Lewis, whose nickname was "Blue." The letter offered "the following Reason I feel the Death threat may be carried out," namely that Geronimo and the other Panthers "were Responsible for Acts of murder they carelessly Bragged about":
|"No. 1: Geronimo for the Killing of a White School Teacher and the wounding of Her Husband on a Tennis Court in the City of Santa Monica some time during the year of 1968.
"No. 2: Geronimo and Blue being Responsible for the Killing of Capt. Franco [a Panther leader] in January 1969 and constantly stating as a threat to me that I was just like Franco and gave them No Alternative but to 'Wash me Away.'"
This was and remains the most important incriminating evidence linking Geronimo Pratt to the tennis court murder. Yet, it is not even addressed, as an issue, in the Court's decision to accept Johnnie Cochran's newest appeal. (Nor has Cochran, of course, raised it as an issue himself.) Roger "Blue" Lewis, in a recorded prison interview with attorneys for the state, has also testified that Geronimo Pratt killed Caroline Olsen and that the murder weapon was his. Eyewitnesses identified Pratt at the murder scene, and at an attempted robbery committed moments before. Neither Pratt nor his attorneys have denied that the car driven by the murderer belonged to Pratt. Still, no other piece of evidence is as incontrovertible and unimpeachable as the letter from Julius Butler contained in the sealed envelope.
Although Butler is accused by Cochran of being a police and FBI informant working with law enforcement to frame Pratt, he did not give this envelope to the FBI. In fact, he had never had a single contact with the FBI up to this point in time. Nor did he just give the envelope to the "racist" Los Angeles Police Department. He gave it to a friend who was a policeman, whom he trusted, and who was black.
When Julius Butler handed over the envelope to Duwayne Rice on August 10, 1969, FBI agents observed the transfer. Three days later, on August 13, the FBI approached Butler and questioned him for the first time. But Butler refused to answer their questions about what was in the envelope and told them nothing about its incriminating contents.
The FBI then went to Rice to get him to give up the envelope. But Rice was also uncooperative. The FBI threatened him with prosecution for obstruction of justice and withholding evidence. But even in the face of these threats Rice held firm. He would neither open the envelope nor turn it over to the agents. It took the FBI another fourteen months, until October 20, 1970, under circumstances which I will turn to in a moment, to get police to give up the letter so that they could open it themselves and read Butler's testimony that Geronimo Pratt had killed Caroline Olsen.
In addition to their accusations that Butler was an informer, the defenders of Geronimo Pratt speculate that the prosecution of Pratt was the result of a "Cointelpro" conspiracy by the FBI to "neutralize" leaders of the Black Panther Party. Their references, typically vague, are meant to insinuate incriminating possibilities. But they are in fact irrelevant. By the time of the Pratt trial, the FBI's famous "Cointelpro" program had been terminated. Moreover, Pratt was no longer even a Panther. Three months earlier, in August 1970, he had been expelled from the Party by Newton. (The official "declaration" of his expulsion, complete with the charge that he had threatened to assassinate Newton, was, however, not made public until Pratt's arrest.)
On December 4, 1970, two months after the letter was opened, Pratt was indicted by a grand jury on one count of murder, one count of assault to commit murder and two counts of robbery. He was arraigned in April 1971 and was convicted a year later on July 28, 1972. Throughout the trial, Pratt maintained that he was in Oakland at the time of the murder for a meeting with Panther leaders. During the trial, and for nearly twenty years thereafter, the Panther leaders—Bobby Seale, David Hilliard and Elaine Brown—denied Pratt's story and left him to his fate. It was the decision to change their story that led to the new and successful appeal, although the judge's decision in the appeal was based on new (but as we have seen, irrelevant) evidence that Butler had talked to law enforcement before the trial, and not on their revised claims.
In the 1980 court opinion denying Pratt's original appeal, the conspiracy theory is succinctly refuted: "First, it is noted that Julius Butler did not give the letter to the FBI but to a trusted friend (Sergeant Rice) for safekeeping only to be opened in the event of his death . . . . Second, logic dictates that if the FBI with the aid of local law enforcement officers had targeted Pratt and intended to 'neutralize' him by 'framing' him for the December 18, 1968, murder of Caroline Olsen, they would not have waited over 14 months after the letter was handed to Sergeant Rice to have the contents of the sealed letter disclosed."
The circumstances under which Butler's letter was finally opened are even more damning for the conspiracy crowd. The FBI agents who had observed Butler transferring the sealed envelope walked over to Sergeant Rice after Butler left and demanded that he turn over the envelope to them. Rice refused. Then, as a precaution, he gave the envelope to yet another black police officer, Captain Edward Henry, who put it in his safe deposit box, still sealed. Rice told no one of this move, in order that the FBI would not know its location. What next transpired is best told in Sergeant Rice's own words:
|"Soon after this incident [the initial demand for the letter from the FBI], the FBI threatened to indict me for obstruction of justice for refusing to turn over the letter to them. Some time the next year I was involved in a fight with a white Los Angeles police officer. Due to this fight, and other allegations against me, I became the subject of an internal police investigation. During this investigation I was questioned by the Los Angeles Police Department regarding what Julius Butler had given me and ordered to turn it over to the police department. When I refused, I was threatened with being fired for refusing a direct order."
It was this investigation of Rice by the L.A.P.D.'s Department of Internal Affairs that led to the opening of the letter. Internal Affairs had actually become suspicious that Rice was "subversive" and sympathetic to the Panthers because of his relationship with Butler. The FBI was also pressuring Butler about his involvement in the Black Panther Party and a possible firearms violation. (Butler had purchased an illegal submachine gun in October 1968, while still a Panther, and did not want to reveal the name of the person he had given it too—another puzzling posture for a "paid informant."
The questioning of Butler by the FBI, after he was observed delivering the envelope to Sergeant Rice, is the principal source of the false impression successfully promoted by the Cochran team that Pratt was on the payroll as an informant for the agency. In the records of the seven FBI interviews with Butler, however, the only mention of Pratt is "that Pratt had a machine gun was common knowledge" and that "Pratt also had a caliber .45 pistol." There is no mention of the crucial fact, still hidden in the sealed envelope, that Pratt had boasted of killing a white school teacher and wounding her husband on a Santa Monica tennis court in 1968.
In fact, an exhaustive review of the FBI records by a deputy attorney general of California states categorically that "Prior to [Pratt's] indictment [for the crime] in December 1970, there are no FBI documents connecting [Pratt] with the tennis court murder." Pratt's indictment was based on the evidence in the envelope sealed by Julius Butler. It was opened at Butler's request in October 1970—22 months after the murder took place—because, as he put it, the FBI was "jamming" him. In turning down Pratt's 1980 appeal, the court noted that "It would be unnatural for the FBI not to be inquisitive about the contents of the sealed envelope once aware of its existence."
The appeal which secured Pratt's release in May of this year adds only minor details to the original 1980 appeal that was rejected. It basically cites recent information voluntarily turned over by prosecutors that seems to amplify the claim that Butler had some kind of involvement with law enforcement after the sealed envelope was delivered to Sergeant Rice. The key new claim, for example, is the existence of an "informant" card that the district attorney's office voluntarily turned over to Cochran's team. When I asked one of the original prosecutors about this, he maintained that the "informant card" was insignificant. "When you take someone to lunch you have to provide a chit for the lunch," he explained. "'Informant' is a convenient category, and that's all there is to it." There is a record of Butler's contacts with the FBI following its agents observation of the encounter with Sergeant Rice. Butler's response to agents' questions is always that he is no longer with the Party and isn't able to give them an informed opinion.
But no matter how one parses the language of these reports, or interprets "informant cards," none of the evidence brought forward by Cochran in any way alters the picture of Julius Butler's relations to law enforcement as outlined here. Butler did not take his charges against Pratt to the police, but strenuously withheld them for nearly two years, until forced by the Internal Affairs investigation of Rice to give them up.
Johnnie Cochran has called Julius Butler a "conniving snake" and "liar" and "police informant." As in the Simpson case, he has had great success with this line of attack before his credulous publics. Los Angeles Urban League president John Mack was only one of many who swallowed it whole. At the time of Pratt's release, Mack told the Los Angeles Times: "The Geronimo Pratt case is one of the most compelling and painful examples of a political assassination on an African-American activist."
Cochran's brief for Pratt religiously follows the pattern of the Simpson defense. It is an attack on law enforcement as a racist conspiracy to "get" his client. A principal problem for Cochran has been the fact that Butler is black, and that until Cochran's charges he was a responsible member of the community, a lawyer and a church elder. As part of Cochran's assault on Butler's character he has alleged that Butler carried a grudge, which was the result of thwarted ambition. That is, when "Bunchy" Carter, the leader of the Los Angeles Panthers was killed by a rival gang headed by Ron ("Malauna") Karenga in a shoot-out at UCLA a month after the Olsen murder, Pratt rather than Butler was made head of the Party and Butler didn't forgive him.
Once again, however, the facts do not substantiate the hypothesis. If jealousy was the motive, why not go to the police immediately? Why hand over a sealed letter and wait 22 months until long after you have become so disillusioned with the Panthers that your jealousy, if not cooled, has become an irrelevance?
In fact, Butler did not even deposit his "insurance" letter into the safekeeping of Sergeant Rice immediately after the murder. He did so only after he was relieved of his Panther duties in July 1969, and then physically threatened by Pratt and his lieutenants, who were conducting a witchhunt in the Party's ranks in the wake of the murder of Bunchy Carter. The cause of Butler's conflict with Pratt was not envy, but a growing concern about the Party's direction. In the sealed letter, Butler wrote:
|"During the year of 1969 I began to notice the party changing its direction from that set forth by Huey P. Newton, and dissented with some theorys [sic] and practices of the So. Calif. Leadership. During the months of June and July 1969 I more strongly critisized [sic] these Leaders, because I felt they were carelessly, and foolishly doing things that didn't have a direction benificial [sic] for the people. I also critisized [sic] the Physical Actions or threats to Party members who were attempting to sincerly [sic] impliment [sic] programs that oppressed people could respond to."
The incident that most depressed Butler was the pistol-whipping of a 17-year-old Panther named Ollie Taylor, who was suspected of working for Karenga's gang. The incident led to false imprisonment and assault with a deadly weapon charges against Butler, Geronimo Pratt and Roger Lewis. Butler's feelings about this incident were so regretful that he pled guilty to the charges in the case. Pratt was also tried but the juries were hung 10-2 and 11-1 for conviction.
According to Butler, Pratt masterminded the torture-interrogation of Taylor, holding a cocked weapon at Butler's head while ordering him to beat the suspect. Under oath at his own trial, Pratt not only denied leading the interrogation but claimed that the beating had taken place before he arrived and that he reprimanded Butler, telling him this wasn't the Panther way to deal with suspects. He then relieved Butler of his position in the Party's security force, and placed him under "house arrest." At trial, the victim Ollie Taylor confirmed Butler's version of the events and flatly contradicted Pratt's story.
Reading Butler's testimony about the Ollie Taylor incident, I had a jolt of recognition that resolved any remaining doubt I may have had as to the integrity of Butler's account not only of these matters but of those regarding the behavior and guilt of Geronimo Pratt. For it was in examining Butler's testimony that Huey's story about the eroticism of violence in Pratt's psyche resurfaced in my mind with riveting force.
|"Q. Was Ollie Taylor in the room at this time?"
"A. Ollie Taylor was sitting in the middle of the room, and I was sitting next to Ollie Taylor, and I was trying to talk to Ollie Taylor on the basis of 'Give as much information about yourself to clear yourself,' and Geronimo stated to me that the shit he was talking was a bunch of bull shit, and I looked over and he cocked the hammer on the pistol."
"Q. Where was the pistol pointed, if at all?"
"A. It was actually right between me and Ollie Taylor, because I was sitting side-by-side with Ollie Taylor."
"Then I noticed that Geronimo had an erection, and he stated, 'If you don't move, I'll blow your head off,' and he said 'Furthermore, I think maybe you're siding with him,' so he told me to slap Ollie Taylor.
"He say, 'You interrogate,' so I did it in the pretense of trying to—at that time I was frightened of Geronimo's behavior, very seriously frightened. I had never seen a man with an erection..."
Before Butler could complete the sentence, his attorney interrupted with an objection that the course of inquiry was irrelevant. But as far as I was concerned, the sentence didn't need to be finished. Here were two different figures, both intimate with Pratt, but otherwise far separated by distance, status, and motivation, who remarked on the erotic charge violence gave him.
Despite the persuasive evidence of Pratt's guilt as contained in the sealed letter, and despite the persuasive evidence in the handling of the letter that Butler was not part of a police or FBI conspiracy to frame Pratt, Cochran prevailed. On May 29, 1997, an Judge Dickey granted Pratt a new trial and immediate release from his current confinement. Dickey concluded that "this was not a strong case for the prosecution without the testimony of [Julius] Butler," and that it was reasonably probable that Pratt could have obtained a different result "in the entire absence of Butler's testimony," or had the prosecution revealed Butler's contacts with law enforcement.
Reading Dickey's opinion is a depressing experience for anyone concerned about American justice. The salient reason cited by Judge Dickey for overturning the original verdict is that the prosecution concealed the "fact" that "[Butler] had been, for at least three years before the trial, providing information about the Black Panther Party and individuals associated with it to law enforcement agencies on a confidential basis."
The statement, as we have seen and as the court records show, is false and misleading. Julius Butler had absolutely no contact with the FBI or law enforcement prior to his delivery of the sealed letter to Sgt. Rice on August 10, 1969, seven months after the murder and less than two years before the trial. The letter's identification of Geronimo Pratt as the killer of Caroline Olsen was available to the jury and was a centerpiece of the court proceeding, a fact which is not even addressed in Dickey's opinion. Nor is the whole history of Butler's withholding of the incriminating document despite efforts by the FBI and the police to pry it from him. These would seem to establish beyond any reasonable doubt that Julius Butler was not an informant, and was not cooperating with the FBI, the police, or the prosecutors of Geronimo Pratt prior to Pratt's arraignment for the murder. Moreover, Butler's testimony at the trial is entirely consistent with the information contained in the incriminating letter and with his behavior throughout the case.
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.