Court Decision for Geronimo Pratt Reveals Deep Injustice

Revolutionary Worker #910, June 8, 1997

"It's about time!" Stuart Hanlon told reporters, "It's about fucking time!" "It's hard to say this case shows the justice system works when it takes this long to free an innocent man."

Hanlon has been Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt's lawyer for 24 years--on a volunteer basis--ever since the former Black Panther Party leader was framed for a robbery-murder. Johnnie Cochran, who represented Geronimo in the 1972 trial and has been co-counsel in the quarter century fight for a new trial, told reporters, "This was the happiest day of my life as a lawyer."

Other defense attorneys pointed out how rare it is that a judge will overturn a decision in a case which has been through so many appeals over a long period of time. "The argument was that he's a murderer, except that they knew he wasn't," a long-time defense attorney in L.A. told the San Jose Mercury News. "What's truly scary is that they were able to confine him for 27 years."

Stuart Hanlon reported that when Geronimo heard the judge's decision, "He was all joy. He didn't just want to hear about the decision. He wanted the words read to him, all of them."

The decision of Judge Everett W. Dickey found that the prosecution at Geronimo's trial had withheld crucial evidence from the defense and denied Geronimo a fair trial.

Judge Dickey cited case law that "even without request from the defendant, either intentional or negligent suppression by the prosecution of substantial material evidence favorable to the accused denies the accused a fair trial and requires reversal.... These cases also made clear that the duty on the part of the prosecution to disclose substantial material evidence favorable to an accused includes not only evidence which directly relates to the question of guilt, but also to the credibility of a material witness whose testimony may be determinative of guilt or innocence."

The Snitch Witness

Much of the decision focused on the fact that a key prosecution witness against Geronimo was a police/FBI informant--and that this information had been deliberately kept from the defense during Geronimo's original trial. Butler is now associated with Los Angeles' First AME Church.

The judge found that the evidence before the court "makes it clear that prosecution witness Julius C. 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 agencies cited by the judge include the LAPD, the FBI and L.A. District Attorney's Office which prosecuted Geronimo. The decision stated that the DA's own records listed Butler as an informant and that one investigator for the DA's office had even been instructed by a supervisor that he needed permission to talk to Butler from FBI agent George Akin because Butler "belongs to George." After receiving permission from the FBI, Butler was considered an informant of the DA's office. Butler was even provided with $200 by a detective in the DA's office to buy a handgun (which he could not legally own because he had been convicted of a felony in 1969).

Other evidence concealed from the defense pointed to an FBI/LAPD setup of Geronimo. The judge found that records available to the DA showed that Butler had delivered a letter which implicated Geronimo in the death of Caroline Olsen to LAPD Sgt. Rice and that Rice was immediately approached by two FBI agents who demanded the letter be surrendered to them as "evidence."

The judge summed up that this information "if properly and timely disclosed to competent defense counsel, would have permitted potentially devastating cross-examination or other impeachment evidence regarding Butler in important respects."

The judge also noted that Butler had given false testimony at the 1972 trial by swearing, "I've never been an informant" and that LAPD Sgt. Rice had "left a grossly inaccurate impress on the jury as to the scope of Butler's activities which was not corrected by the prosecutor."

In refuting claims that the defense was not diligent in uncovering this information, the judge noted that: "It is highly unlikely that criminal defense attorneys for a known Black Panther leader in 1972 would have been able to obtain any information about a prosecution witness of the type mentioned herein just by asking law enforcement agents for it, especially where such extensive efforts were made to keep his informing activities confidential (such as the LAPD officers' falsifying of a police report with the permission of the Acting Police Chief....)"

Unraveling the
Prosecutor's "Case"

This hearing focused on whether Geronimo had received a fair trial and did not actually come to a conclusion on Pratt's innocence in the robbery-murder. For instance, the decision does not deal with evidence which shows that Geronimo Pratt was actually 400 miles away at the time the robbery-murder of Caroline Olsen occurred. However, the judge made several points in the decision which broadly discredit the prosecutor's case.

The judge pointed out that for two years Pratt was never viewed by the police as a suspect in the December 18, 1968 Santa Monica tennis court robbery-murder--until the information from Butler was made available many months later. He also pointed out that it was significant that Butler was the only witness who testified that Pratt confessed to the crime--noting that such reported "confessions" are known to have a strong influence on juries.

The judge also noted that other eyewitness accounts--such as testimony of Caroline Olsen's husband who was wounded and a witness who said she saw Geromino "under threatening circumstances" at her place of business before the robbery-murder--were not reliable. He noted that the "possible unreliability of such cross-racial identifications of strangers based on a brief period of observation under stressful conditions has become so well known in the years since Petitioner's trial that judges now almost always specially instruct a jury in the subject upon request whenever eyewitness identification evidence is offered by the prosecution."

In other words it is so common for whites in such situations to misidentify Black people that even the case law has to acknowledge this problem.

Putting the Case
in a Different Light

A very important aspect of the decision was where the judge pointed out that Geronimo's defense did not need to prove that the information about Butler which was hidden by the prosecution would have led to an acquittal. "He need only show that the cumulative impact of the evidence which should have been disclosed could reasonably be taken to put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict."

The court concluded that Geronimo had "met his burden of showing that the evidence which was withheld about Julius Butler and his activities could have put the whole case in a different light, and failure to timely disclose it undermines confidence in the verdict. The failure of the prosecution to disclose denies Petitioner the fair trial guaranteed by the United States Constitution by impairing defense counsel's ability to fully impeach the credibility of a key prosecution witness." He concluded that "confidence in the verdict is undermined, and Petitioner is entitled to habeas corpus relief as requested." He "vacated" the 1975 judgement which sentenced Geronimo Pratt to life imprisonment, and discharged Geronimo Pratt from state prison.

The decision confirmed what so many people already knew--that the LAPD, FBI, and DA's office conspired to railroad this revolutionary brother and stole 25 years of his life.

As we go to press, Geronimo is still in custody of the L.A. sheriffs, awaiting a hearing on whether the L.A. DA will set a new trial, file appeal, or drop the charges. Geronimo's legal defense team will make an effort to win bail for Geronimo early and push Gil Garcetti to drop the entire case.

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