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Johnnie Cochran Wins A Case By: David Horowitz
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, January 01, 1998


Johnnie Cochran Jr., best known for getting O.J. Simpson an acquittal, has won a reprieve for another client in what many perceived as a "hopeless" case. Twenty-five years ago, Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, a former munitions expert and "Deputy Minister of Defense" for the Black Panther Party, was convicted of robbing and murdering a grade school teacher on a Santa Monica tennis court. Johnnie Cochran, who was Pratt's attorney in the case, vowed that he would never rest until the verdict was reversed and his client released.

This prospect has been made a virtual certainty now that a Superior Court Judge, Everett W. Dickey, has ordered the state to give Pratt a new trial. Even if such a trial were to be scheduled, the principal witnesses are dead, and a quarter of a century has so blurred the memories of everyone concerned as to make the criterion of "reasonable doubt" an insuperable barrier to a new prosecution.

Judge Dickey's decision was largely based on the argument that Pratt's 1972 conviction was heavily influenced by the testimony of Julius Butler, an "FBI informant" whose relationship to law enforcement was wrongfully concealed from the jury by prosecutors. In making his case for re-trial, Cochran explained the prosecution's motives for framing Pratt as a political retribution because he was a Panther.

Who is Geronimo Pratt and why - aside from the celebrity of the attorney who has won him a re-trial - should this case matter? Because the issues it raises are the same as those in the more famous O.J. Simpson trial: the credibility of the law, the fairness of government, and the future of white-black relations in America.

As with Simpson, the specific facts of the case never looked good for Geronimo Pratt. Witnesses identified him as one of two men who attempted to rob a nearby store in the area, shortly before schoolteacher Caroline Olsen was murdered (also by two men, according to eyewitnesses). Olsen's husband, who was wounded by the assailants, identified Pratt at the trial (although he had identified another man as the culprit for two years after the attack, until Pratt's arrest). 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 murder weapon.

At the trial, Pratt, now 48, offered an alibi: He was attending a Black Panther Party meeting in Oakland at the time of the deed. Unfortunately for Pratt, no Panthers came forward as witnesses on his behalf. The reason was that Pratt belonged to the more violent wing of the Party, the "Eldridge Cleaver faction" that was at war with the Oakland group. Pratt also claimed - some might think fancifully - that his car was used by other Party members, that the gun, though found in an apartment he used, was not his, and that two Panthers, now conveniently dead, actually committed the murders.

None of this daunted the "International Committee to Free Geronimo Pratt," which rallied many familiar left-wing celebrities, including Ed Asner and Mike Farrell, to the cause. As a result of the campaign, former Panther leaders Bobby Seale, David Hilliard and Elaine Brown changed their stories about Pratt's non-presence at the meeting in Oakland and began to claim that he was actually there. They were joined by a disgruntled former FBI agent as well.

But the real key to the strategy that has won a new trial for Pratt is evidence that the prosecution's chief witness was a secret "FBI informant." Julius Butler had been the Panthers' former "security" chief. It was he who linked Pratt to the gun, and testified that Pratt confessed the murder to him. Butler is now a retired lawyer and chairman of the First African Methodist Episcopal church in South Central Los Angeles. But in Johnnie Cochran's lexicon, Julius Butler is "a conniving snake," "a lying perjurer," and "a pathological liar," who framed Pratt for his FBI masters. In other words, Julius Butler is Geronimo Pratt's Mark Furhman. Once again Johnnie Cochran has turned a case of the "People vs. the Accused" into a case of the people vs. the Law itself.

A Superior Court Judge has acceded to Cochran's legal argument. But how should the rest of us regard these events? First of all, we should disregard the rhetoric about law enforcement conducting a campaign of retribution against the Panthers for their political ideas. The L.A. Panther Party, led by a South Central gangster named "Bunchy" Carter, was formed by members of the Slausons, the most feared street gang in Watts. Even the Cochran team argues that it was two active members of the Party who actually committed the robbery-murder, one of hundreds of such violent street crimes committed by Panthers at the height of their notoriety (as Edward Epstein reported in a New Yorker article at the time). In her autobiography, Elaine Brown, a member of the L.A. Panthers when Pratt was its Minister of Defense, described the leader of its "underground" in the following terms: "Captain Franco...had spent twelve years in Sing Sing Prison in New York on robbery and murder charges. Now he was Bunchy's right hand." Geronimo Pratt, was presumably his left.

In the second place, we should be concerned that when the credibility of the FBI and law enforcement are weighed against the testimony of street criminals these days, it is usually the law that operates at a disadvantage. Johnnie Cochran never did offer evidence that Mark Fuhrman planted evidence to frame O.J. Simpson. Nor has he provided evidence in this case that the FBI set out to frame Geronimo Pratt. But the results are the same as if he had.

Is this a healthy situation for the public and its safety? I think not. This is a situation that has been created by years of unsubstantiated accusations by attorneys like Cochran repeated reflexively by the working press. The L.A. Times front page story on the Pratt case, for example, summarizes: "Pratt's protestation of innocence has echoed through the last two decades as a bridge to a turbulent era in which law enforcement agencies carried out a war to 'neutralize' members of the Black Panthers and other radical organizations." But as articles by Kate Coleman, Edward Epstein and Paul Avery, and books by journalist Hugh Pearson (The Shadow of the Panther) and myself (Radical Son) and - inadvertently -- Elaine Brown (A Taste of Power), have shown, this FBI "war" is largely a myth. It was the Panthers, in fact, who were conducting a war on law enforcement and on ordinary citizens, especially in the poor and black neighborhoods where their operations were based.

In sum, in the matter of the Black Panthers, the historical record vindicates the view the FBI took at the time. They were a gang of thugs who brutalized even their own members (with bull whips and chains). They tortured and killed (and often got away with it). In addition, they were involved in many other serious crimes for which they were rightfully convicted. And on no occasion has the FBI ever been found to have framed a Panther (or any other black radical) for a serious felony like homicide.

Did Geronimo Pratt rob and kill an innocent schoolteacher in Santa Monica 25 years ago? Who can say for sure, except Pratt himself? What we do know is that whether Geronimo Pratt goes free or not, American justice has already been compromised. Not by FBI misdeeds, but by years of irresponsible attacks on law enforcement agencies and facile accusations of racism and repression.


David Horowitz is the founder of The David Horowitz Freedom Center and author of the new book, One Party Classroom.


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