San Diego Union-Tribune
LOS ANGELES -- Hailed as America's version of Nelson Mandela when he was released June 10 after 27 years in prison, Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt is fielding book offers and movie deals and still basking in the glow of favorable publicity. Yesterday, there was even a "Geronimo" Pratt appreciation day at an Oakland park.
But overshadowed by Pratt's lionization and his oft-repeated contention that he was framed is the evidence that ties him to the Dec. 18, 1968, shooting death of elementary school teacher Caroline Olsen on a Santa Monica tennis court. These allegations paint Pratt not as a victim of injustice but as a cold-hearted killer who pumped two bullets into a defenseless 27-year-old woman in an $18 stickup.
Overlooked in recent media accounts of the case are:
- The allegation that Johnnie Cochran Jr., the Pratt lawyer who later attained fame in the OJ. Simpson trial, tried to mislead jurors with manufactured evidence.
- The fact that defense contentions of an FBI conspiracy to frame Pratt have not been proved.
- Testimony about Pratt's fondness for violence.
- The fact that Pratt's car was placed at the scene of the killing and testimony that the murder weapon matched a gun he had ready access to.
These are some of the factors that pushed District Attorney Gil Garcetti's choice to appeal Superior Court Judge Everett Dickey's decision granting Pratt a new trial. The appeal is expected to be filed in the next few months.
Pratt's supporters dismiss Garcetti and other detractors as sore losers who are flat wrong. "They're pointing to anything to detract from the fact that this case was wrong from the start," said Stuart Hanlon, who has represented Pratt since 1974.
Indeed, the case against Pratt was hardly spotless.
Pratt contends he was in Oakland on the day of the killing, and was framed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The government's case, he contends, was sold to the jury through another former Panther named Julius Butler, who testified Pratt confessed to the Olsen killing.
Butler denied he was an informant but it was later learned he was. After an internal review of the case in. 1993, prosecutors found a card in an old informers file with Butler's name on it. It was dated six months prior to Pratt's trial and was never turned over to the defense.
In May, Dickey ruled that defense knowledge of Butler's activities could have changed the outcome of the trial a quarter-century ago. A new trial was granted.
Lawyers in the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Office refuse to comment publicly about the politically charged case. But sources familiar with the prosecution's case, speaking on the condition of anonymity, contend that even without Butler the government had enough evidence to convict. "He admits it was his car that was at the murder scene; that is significant evidence from the start," said one source.
Before Pratt became a cause celebre, his case was famous in the training sessions in the Los Angeles prosecutor's office on how to present an effective rebuttal case.
During the trial, whether Pratt had facial hair on the day of the 1968 killing was a key question. The sole witness to the killing, the victim is husband Kenneth Olsen, said the assailant was clean shaven. Cochran presented a black and white Polaroid film snapshot showing Pratt purportedly on Dec. 27, 1968, (a few days after the shooting) with facial hair celebrating Christmas with his family.
In their rebuttal case, prosecutors presented a Polaroid technician who said the film was made on May 28, 1969, - months after the killings. Cochran didn't cross-examine the technician.
Former juror Jeanne Hamilton, who championed Pratt's release, said it was a key factor in his conviction. "I went through the whole trial thinking 'not guilty, not guilty,'" she said. "When we got into deliberations I was devastated...When someone would say 'What about the photo?' I had nothing to argue back with. There was no explanation whatsoever."
It's a key factor to those who believe Pratt is guilty. "Why would an innocent man present false evidence?" asked one person familiar with the case. "The only misconduct that took place during that trial is when Johnnie Cochran presented perjured testimony to the jury," another said. Hanlon said it was a mistake by Cochran, who received the photograph from a Pratt relative and believed it was shot in 1968.
Rev. Jim McCloskey, a lay minister who pushed for reconsideration of Pratt's case, said prosecutors frequently point to this because "that's all they have to point to. They have numerous flaws in their case."
McCloskey and others say there are many questionable witness accounts, including Kenneth Olsen, who was shot five times in the attack.
Defense lawyers said he identified another man before fingering Pratt as the killer. Pratt detractors scoff at this claim as "erroneous" and say Kenneth Olsen never identified the first man as the killer but as someone who looked like the assailant.
Saw his attacker
In court, Olsen said he spoke with his attacker face to face on a well-lit tennis court and was certain it was Pratt. He specifically recalled a round-shaped scar near the bridge of his nose, like Pratt has.
Those who believe in Pratt's guilt also point to the April 1969 beating of a 17-year-old Black Panther named Ollie Taylor, which they said shows Pratt's proclivity for violence.
Pratt and others were reportedly interrogating Taylor about being affiliated with a rival organization. Court documents quote Taylor as saying Pratt hit him so hard he knocked him out of a chair and then several people kicked him while he was on the floor. Taylor said Butler slapped him during the interrogation and knocked out a tooth.
Butler, who was convicted on an assault charge stemming from the incident, testified that Pratt appeared sexually aroused during the interrogation and suggested that Pratt was reveling in the violence. Pratt tells a widely different tale, saying it was a drunken Butler who bloodied Taylor.
Pratt supporters say the problem with much evidence in the case is that it runs through Butler, who Pratt viewed as an envious rival. Pratt detractors, however, said Butler was a man in over his head in his involvement with the Panthers.
Some key testimony
"He is man who was trying to do the right thing...his life has been ruined by this," a source said. Even with the murder weapon, Butler's testimony is key.
Police arrested Pratt - on a separate charge - and found a .45-caliber pistol in a January 1969 police raid on a Black Panther house. A ballistics expert testified he couldn't conclude the barrel markings matched the bullets that killed the school teacher. However, Butler testified Pratt told him he changed the barrel of the gun.
What is often ignored, however, is testimony by the same ballistics expert, who said that the firing pin marks made by the gun matched those left in shells at the murder scene. Again, Cochran didn't cross-examine this damaging testimony.
In Pratt's corner is a seemingly unlikely ally, a former FBI agent. M. Wesley Swearingen helps support Pratt's alibi by saying agency files were destroyed that record that Pratt was seen in Oakland and not in Los Angeles at the time of the killing.
But those who believe Pratt is guilty say Swearingen is a disgruntled former agent and that the FBI probably wouldn't have taken note of Pratt in late 1968 even if he were with the Panthers. Court records indicate the FBI didn't attach much significance to Pratt - a Vietnam War veteran who moved from Louisiana in 1968 to attend UCLA - until well after the Olsen murder. The courts have given no credence to the claims of missing or destroyed files, sources said.
Up to the District Attorney
The evidence against Pratt, however, may be for naught. If Garcetti loses his appeal, he'll then have to decide whether to retry Pratt or drop the charges. A retrial is considered an unlikely prospect even by the case's strongest supporters. Kenneth Olsen is dead and Butler is so discredited he probably would not take the stand.
On top of this is a degree of apathy about the case. Relatives and friends of murder victim Caroline Olsen haven't stepped forward. Even in the ranks of Garcetti's office, there is a split. Pratt was incarcerated for 27 years and that's longer than many other convicted murderers have served, some say. Others have been stewing over Pratt's release, the prospects of a movie or book deal and the parallels drawn between Mandela and Pratt.
Mandela, they note, was held in prison unjustly because he refused to renounce the African National Congress. Pratt was denied parole 16 times because he used drugs refused to attend prison education programs and had other discipline problems. He was never denied parole because he would not admit his guilt.
Pratt hasn't made those comparisons himself. He contends he was another victim of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover's counter-intelligence division, known as COINTELPRO. FBI plots to "neutralize" its perceived enemies are now well known. Hoover's FBI haunted Panther-backing actress Jean Seberg so much in the 1960s that it reportedly drove her to suicide.
Dickey's reversal of the Pratt conviction unearthed memories of an era of political strife which many wish to forget. Pratt symbolizes an era when angry young adults clashed with law enforcement on campuses and in the streets.
But those who believe Pratt is guilty of murder say his prosecution and Caroline Olsen's killing had nothing to do with the political intrigue of that time. And Dickey's decision isn't a vindication of Pratt, just a finding that prosecutors erred and that the case against him was not "overwhelming."
As one source noted, Dickey only said Pratt gets another chance. The judge said "We start over.... He did not say (Pratt) didn't do it."'