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Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt's lawyer faces off with Salon columnist David Horowitz over truth, the Pratt By: Stuart Hanlon
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 01, 1998


Editor's note: An Orange County, Calif., judge has granted a new trial for Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, who was convicted 25 years ago of the murder of a woman in a Santa Monica, Calif., playground. Pratt supporters have long claimed that the conviction was unjust and based on false testimony.

In a recent Salon column, headlined "The Cochran-ization of American Justice," David Horowitz said the evidence against Pratt appeared strong, and that the campaign waged by Pratt's supporters and lawyers, including Johnnie Cochran, was damaging the reputation of law enforcement. Soon after the column appeared, Salon received a letter from Stuart Hanlon, who has been Pratt's chief attorney for 23 years. Below is the text of Stuart Hanlon's letter, followed by a response from David Horowitz.

Horowitz ignores the facts - and the truth.

David Horowitz's article, "The Cochran-ization of American Justice," is about the case of Elmer Geronimo Pratt. The truth and facts are concepts Horowitz can't recognize or chooses to ignore.

Though you couldn't tell from the article, I have been Geronimo Pratt's attorney since 1974, when I was in law school, and have represented him for the last 23 years. Though it is true that Johnnie Cochran vigorously acted as co-counsel in Geronimo's habeas corpus hearing in Orange County last year, he has not been actively involved in Geronimo's attempt to gain freedom over the last 23 years.

Horowitz attempts to use Geronimo's case as a forum for his hatred of Johnnie Cochran. In his zest to demonize Johnnie Cochran and blame him for all racism and police misconduct in our society, he finds it acceptable to ignore the truth.

Horowitz says that the murder weapon was "Pratt's gun" and found "in his house." The true facts are that the murder weapon was found in a house of a murdered Black Panther named Jonathan Higgins and was never identified as Pratt's gun. Thirty Black Panther Party members were arrested outside the house, including Pratt and snitch Julius Butler.

Regarding the getaway car, Horowitz states that some may think it fanciful that Pratt alleges the car was used by other Party members. Horowitz failed to review the trial transcript where 10 people, including Julius Butler, testified that all Panthers had access to Pratt's car.

Horowitz states that the evidence is overwhelming about Pratt because two witnesses identified him. However, Horowitz fails to note that the identification took place more than two years after the event and was based on a biased and rigged photo lineup. The killer was described as 5-foot-8, with a light-skinned complexion, wearing a bush jacket. In the photographic lineup, there were 15 photos and only three were under 6 feet tall; two of those three were dark-skinned and only one of the photographs -- that of Geronimo Pratt -- showed a 5-8 black man with light skin wearing a bush jacket. Anyone who has any kind of sense, let alone experience in the criminal justice system, knows that such an identification is meaningless at best.

More importantly than these misstatements, Horowitz leaves out the entire history of Pratt's post-conviction fight to gain his freedom and a new trial, and his own personal bias. Horowitz paints a picture of the good-guy FBI doing their job to arrest and convict the bad street thug. Horowitz is a disgruntled former supporter of the Black Panther Party. It might have been helpful if he let his readers know of his own personal bias.

In reality, the FBI ran an illegal and brutal program, Cointelpro, whose aim was to destroy the Black Panther Party. In that program, the FBI used informants, lies, illegal acts and, in one case (Fred Hampton), murder. One of those informants was Julius Butler, who brought in the key piece of evidence against Pratt - his alleged confession.

After 23 years of fighting in the courts, it is now known that Butler lied when he said that he never informed on anybody. Prior to the time of his testimony, Butler was an informant for the FBI, the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department and, most importantly, the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office - the very same office that prosecuted Pratt. The L.A. District Attorney's Office kept an informant card on Butler that exists to the present day (and was hidden for over 25 years) and paid him off for his testimony with favors, including probation on a serious assault case and no prosecution on a federal firearms violation; the District Attorney's office also provided Butler - a convicted felon - with a gun that he then used on the street to terrorize his own community.

Horowitz claims that the FBI is at a disadvantage. If that is true, it is only because the FBI as well as the district attorney and the local police in Los Angeles allowed themselves to be used by and to use a convicted felon as an informant and a paid snitch and allowed that same person to commit perjury at a trial.

Neither Cochran nor I in the evidentiary hearing ever stated anything about racist FBI agents, planted evidence or government frame-up. A simple review of the transcript would confirm this. We talked about and continue to talk about the intentional suppression of evidence that went to the heart of the evidence against Pratt. Geronimo Pratt did not get a fair trial, and crucial evidence that should have been given to the jury was suppressed by the government.

The claim that American justice has been compromised not by the misdeeds of the FBI and other local and state prosecutorial agencies but by irresponsible attacks on law enforcement agencies and false accusations of racism is stunning in its falseness when compared to the reality seen by anyone who is familiar with our criminal justice system.

Our justice system is presently and historically infused with racism and misdeeds of police officers. This does not mean that most police officers are racist or that most of them lie - in fact, many of them are good men and women who are just trying to do their job. However, the acts of the minority affect our views of the majority.

The only person who is irresponsible is Mr. Horowitz. He attempts to attack Johnnie Cochran by writing falsely about Geronimo Pratt and the reality of his case. Geronimo is innocent and at a minimum did not receive a fair trial. He was convicted on false testimony produced in a large part by those sworn to uphold law and justice.

Mr. Horowitz has made a career on hate - his own hatred of his former self. It would be helpful if sometime Horowitz tried to deal with the truth and the facts as opposed to trying to change them to fit his predisposed views.

--Stuart Hanlon is a member of the law firm of Tamburello Hanlon & Waggener in San Francisco.


David Horowitz replies:

As in his legal defense of Black Panther Geronimo Pratt, Stuart Hanlon relies mostly on ad hominem attacks in his reply to my Salon article. I shall reply to these first.

Hanlon accuses me of using Pratt's case as "a forum for his hatred of Johnnie Cochran." My piece was about Geronimo Pratt (the headline "The Cochran-ization of American Justice" was added by Salon> editors. My original title was "Whose Word Is Good?") For the record, my piece was not about Johnnie Cochran but about the credibility of Geronimo Pratt vs. The credibility of the FBI. I don't have any personal animus against Johnnie Cochran. Nor did I "blame him for all racism and police misconduct in our society." This is exactly the kind of exaggerated rhetoric that - as I suggested in my article - has been directed at opponents of the Panthers and opponents of the left, with a corrosive effect on law enforcement in this country.

But this is not enough for Hanlon. He then accuses me not only of hating Johnnie Cochran but the Black Panthers as well and of concealing my "bias." At this moment there are tens of thousands of copies of Radical Son, my memoir of my experiences with the Black Panther Party, in bookstores across America. I have been to 25 cities in the last three months promoting the book and have appeared on more than 150 hours of talk radio before audiences totaling perhaps 30 million people. This hardly adds up to concealment.

In fact, if there is anyone who is shy about mentioning this story, it is Hanlon. For the story concerns a series of murders committed by Panthers and the difficulty the police have had in prosecuting the Panther perpetrators of these crimes. In other words, a reality quite relevant to the case at hand.

Finally, Hanlon accuses me of having "made a career on hate" of my former self. This is a facile and sleazy charge that requires no answer, but shows how reflexively and relentlessly Hanlon reaches for the smear as a substitute for making his case. Unfortunately, this is the core of his case in behalf of Geronimo Pratt as well.

Hanlon argues as though my article were an attempt to convict Pratt. Honest readers of the piece will see instantly that it is not. I repeat most of the defense attempts to refute the evidence. I explicitly say that only Geronimo Pratt really knows whether he committed the murder or not. I say it is absurd to think that we can resolve the issues of evidence 25 years later. I say the case now is really about the relative credibility of Pratt and the FBI (and its informant, Julius Butler). I deplore the fact that in the atmosphere created by attorneys like Cochran and Hanlon, who use inflated and/or unsubstantiated charges against "racist" police and a "conspiratorial" FBI, the credibility of law enforcement and its agents is lower than that of the criminals themselves. I say I do not think this is a healthy state of affairs.

As a longtime member of the left I have been through many "political" trials. There is always disagreement over the evidence. There is always a question about the integrity of witnesses. There is usually a campaign for clemency or a retrial like the one in behalf of Geronimo Pratt. But I have noticed over the years that in the cases that did come to trial - Sacco and Vanzetti, the Rosenbergs, Chambers-Hiss, Huey Newton, Los Siete de la Raza - as well as in those that didn't, like that of George Jackson and the Soledad Brothers, the state, the FBI and the police have been proven right over time, and the left has been proven wrong. In each case, the left was swayed by its political passions into false assessments of the evidence at hand.

That was the gravamen of my article. Hanlon has ignored all this, as he has the question as to why the Panthers - whom he finds such noble victims of police depredations - maintained for 20 years that Pratt was the killer. (As I noted in my column, they have now changed their opinions to help Pratt's appeal.) For those not familiar with the case, Elaine Brown, Bobby Seale and David Hilliard, who are now proclaiming Pratt's "innocence," for 20 years refuted Pratt's main alibi - that he was in Oakland attending a central committee meeting of the Panthers at the time of the murder. Why did it take Elaine Brown, Bobby Seale and David Hilliard all that time to change their story if it wasn't true?

Hanlon rehearses the defense versions of several points of evidence in the trial. He does so because he says "Horowitz states that the evidence is overwhelming about Pratt." I did no such thing. I said that the case turns on whether you believe Pratt or the FBI. Perhaps other Panthers had access to Pratt's car, as some testified and as Hanlon maintains. But without Pratt's permission? The Party was organized on military lines and Pratt was the field general. And what about the night of the murder? Who had the keys? That, of course, is the question. The two Panthers whom Pratt identifies as the "real" killers are dead and conveniently can't speak to the issue. Perhaps, as the defense argues, the gun wasn't Pratt's. Who knows? It was found in an apartment he used as his own, although the apartment belonged to John Higgins. The gun was connected to Pratt by Julius Butler. Perhaps, as the defense maintains, the identifications weren't accurate. I pointed out in my column how difficult after all these years it is to know. The case, as I clearly wrote, turns on the testimony of the FBI informant Julius Butler. The question is, why should we trust Pratt more than him?

Of course, Julius Butler is not the most credible witness. He has lied. But so have the witnesses that now support Pratt's alibi -- Seale, Hilliard and Brown. Butler was convicted of assault and a firearm violation, and according to Hanlon used a gun "on the street to terrorize his own community." In Hanlon's view this is a reason not to believe him. Of course, all the Panther leaders, including Pratt, were felons who used their guns to terrorize their own communities. Why should we believe them? The L.A. Panthers, for whom Pratt was deputy minister of defense, were the notorious Slauson Street gang, led by Bunchy Carter, the most feared gangster in Watts. One of the difficulties in convicting gangsters is that the witnesses against them usually are gangsters themselves. The chief defense of John Gotti's lawyers was that Sammy "The Bull" Gravano was an unreliable witness because he was a thug who was involved in the activities that were being prosecuted. It took the tapes to persuade the jury that Gravano was telling the truth. Timothy McVeigh's lawyer is using the same defense against the chief prosecution witness in the Oklahoma City bombing trial. It goes with the territory.

Hanlon's evasions, misstatements, overstatements and smears hardly instill confidence in the integrity of his case. "Our justice system is presently and historically infused with racism and misdeeds of police officers," he says out of one side of his mouth, just to set up the inflammatory possibilities. "This does not mean that most police officers are racist or that most of them lie," he then says out of the other side of his mouth, just to establish his credibility. But then comes the bottom line: "However, the acts of the minority affect our views of the majority." But should they in a court of law? Isn't the whole judicial process set up so that we look at the individual facts of the case at hand, and only those facts? That is the goal. But as long as there are players like Johnnie Cochran and Stuart Hanlon, it is a distant one at best.


Stuart Hanlon is a member of the law firm of Tamburello Hanlon & Waggener in San Francisco, and works as lead counsel for Geronimo Pratt.


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