The Case of Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt

Revolutionary Worker #910, June 8, 1997

For over a quarter of a century, Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt has been locked up by the government for a murder he didn't commit. For 26 years the U.S. government has kept this former leader of the L.A. Black Panther Party away from the people. He has been denied parole 16 times--because he stood firm and refused to "admit his guilt."

Geronimo's attorneys uncovered evidence that clearly showed a government conspiracy to frame Geronimo. But it took until December 1996 for Geronimo to win the right to a hearing on evidence that prosecutors lied to defense lawyers, lied to the jury, and covered up evidence of a broad government effort to jail Geronimo for his revolutionary beliefs.

Geronimo Targeted by COINTELPRO

In the late 1960s and early '70s, when Geronimo was a young revolutionary, the whole system of U.S. imperialism was being challenged--from the War in Vietnam to the Black Liberation and revolutionary movements at home. Federal agencies led by the FBI created COINTELPRO, a "counterintelligence" program, aimed at targeting, harassing, sabotaging, jailing and murdering radicals and revolutionaries. One of their main targets was the Black Panther Party. FBI agents organized murderous armed assaults on Panther offices and leaders. They attempted to infiltrate snitches into the Party, they framed Panther leaders and carried out "disinformation" campaigns. These included forging letters and starting rumors to create splits in the Panthers and other organizations, and disunity between revolutionaries and other sympathetic forces.

Geronimo was targeted by COINTELPRO--to be "neutralized." Late in 1969, four days after Illinois Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered in the night by the FBI and Chicago cops, 40 SWAT police and 100 regular LAPD--in coordination with the FBI--launched an early morning armed assault on the Southern California Black Panther headquarters on Central Ave. But the Panthers--led by Geronimo, who was a Vietnam vet--insisted that people take the possibility of a police assault seriously. The headquarters building had two stories. Because of the preparations, and the heroic actions of the Panthers who shot back at the police, the cops were not able to get up to the second floor. As the Panthers held out inside the building, masses gathered around the police lines, forcing the cops to retreat.

Six Panthers were wounded, 13 were arrested, but because of their successful self-defense, no Panthers were killed that night. Using the same assassination techniques that murdered Fred Hampton, the LAPD aimed their fire to hit Geronimo's bed--but Geronimo had decided to sleep on the floor that night, narrowly escaping the police bullets. The arrested Panthers were charged with "assaulting the police" and Geronimo spent two months in jail until $125,000 bond was raised. On a nationwide tour, Geronimo was hounded by police surveillance and COINTELPRO disinformation designed to foment distrust against him--as a major line struggle was underway within the Panther party itself.

In December 1970, one year after the L.A. raid, Geronimo was arrested and falsely charged with the killing of Caroline Olsen. Caroline Olsen was killed on a tennis court in Santa Monica in 1968 during a robbery where $18 was stolen. Her husband Kenneth Olsen was wounded.

From the beginning it was obvious that Geronimo was being framed. At the time of the 1968 robbery he was 400 miles away at a Black Panther Party retreat in Oakland, California. He called L.A. from the Oakland Panther office two and half hours before the robbery. Although the full extent of COINTELPRO operations did not emerge until years later, it was well known that leaders of the Black Panther Party were under heavy government surveillance. Articles in the progressive media at the time questioned where the FBI surveillance logs of the Oakland meeting were. And in 1975 two private investigators saw the 1968 wiretap logs while investigating another case--the logs revealed that the FBI knew that Geronimo was on Bobby Seale's telephone in Oakland shortly before the murder and could not have been in Santa Monica. The FBI now claims that wiretap and other surveillance records of the Panthers during the week of the tennis court robbery in 1968 were "lost."

Geronimo's alibi was further undermined because the COINTELPRO operation had succeeded in driving a wedge between different factions of the Panthers, and leading Panthers were discouraged from testifying. At the 1972 trial, Kathleen Cleaver was the only Panther leader to testify in Geronimo's defense. Twenty years later, six former BPP members testified that Geronimo was at the Oakland meeting.

The Original Railroad

In Geronimo's original trial in 1972, the prosecution offered no physical evidence linking Geronimo to the murder. The prosecution's flimsy case rested on the testimony of only two witnesses. One of these witnesses, named Julius Butler, was a police informant. Butler testified that Geronimo "confessed" to him that he had committed the Santa Monica tennis court robbery. Butler swore that he was not a police informant. But since Geronimo's conviction, numerous documents from the LAPD and the FBI have identified Julius Butler as an informant who snitched on the Panthers for two years. FBI documents released in 1979 disclosed that Butler had more than 30 documented contacts with agents before Geronimo's trial in 1972.

Butler was a former L.A. County Deputy Sheriff who joined the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles in the late '60s. At one point, he had some responsibilities for security for the Panthers. But many Panther members found a lot of reasons not to trust him. In 1969, for example, Butler and six other Panthers were charged in a case of kidnaping. In a pre-trial hearing, Butler pleaded guilty, without even talking to his lawyer, and was given probation and a $200 fine. This was highly unusual treatment for a Black Panther convicted of four felonies!

In August 1969 Butler was expelled from the Black Panther Party. Two days later, he produced a "letter" which he said he had written earlier, accusing Geronimo Pratt of the 1968 robbery. The police used this "letter" as a pretext to arrest, frame and convict Geronimo.

Evidence of the Frame-up

The new hearings in Geronimo's case, which began December 16 in Santa Ana, California, centered around Julius Butler. Butler is now a lawyer and the chairman of the board of directors of the First AME Church, one of the largest Black churches in L.A.

For the first time in 25 years, Julius Butler was forced to testify about his role in the railroad of Geronimo. And as soon as Butler opened his mouth, it was clear that he is still working to help the government frame-up of Geronimo and keep him in jail.

Geronimo's lawyers produced documents from the LAPD, FBI and L.A. County DA's office identifying Butler as a government informant. But in the face of this, Butler told Geronimo's lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. that he was not an informant. Butler tried to say he was just a "concerned citizen who was passing along information." But Butler was finally forced to admit that he was "acting as an informant" at certain times.

Despite Julius Butler's attempt to twist the truth, the hearings established new details about his relationship to law enforcement agencies. Two LAPD officers, Duwayne Rice and Edward Henry, testified about their numerous contacts with Julius Butler. In the words of Geronimo's attorney Stuart Hanlon, they painted a picture of a "classic informant relationship with law enforcement."

According to the law, the prosecution and every other state agency, including the police, are required to reveal all evidence to the defense. This is especially true when they have evidence that would help people prove their innocence. If a person is convicted and it comes out later that the prosecution covered up important information, the convicted person has the right to a new trial.

In Geronimo's case, the amount of information that was covered up by prosecutors is truly phenomenal. In 1972 the prosecution presented only a carefully censored version of their "evidence" to the defense. The new hearing in Santa Ana revealed new evidence on how the prosecution handled not only Julius Butler but the other main witness used against Geronimo--the surviving robbery victim Kenneth Olsen. One of the investigators on the case testified that he thought Kenneth Olsen was "flaky." Before Olsen had fingered Geronimo, he had already identified two other "suspects" as the killer of his wife, including one "suspect" who was in jail at the time of the robbery. None of this crucial information was given to the defense.

The testimony of Kenneth Olsen was the most important piece of evidence for at least one juror, Jeanne Hamilton. She voted to convict Geronimo in 1972. But since then she has worked many years to free Geronimo. Hamilton recalls being swayed to vote guilty when another juror reminded her of Kenneth Olsen's identification saying, "If someone had shot your spouse, wouldn't you remember his face?" Hamilton has also said that had she known that Butler was an informant--and other information which has surfaced to confirm Geronimo's innocence--she never would have found him guilty.

The Struggle for a New Trial

It took years of struggle to force the government to give Geronimo a hearing on all this evidence. In 1992 Geronimo's defense team presented evidence of a wide-ranging government frame-up to the L.A. County District Attorney, Gil Garcetti, who promised a thorough investigation. After three years nothing had been done. Finally, on February 26, 1996, Geronimo's lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus in the L.A. Superior Court.

Stuart Hanlon, Geronimo's main attorney, announced, "We have come back to Los Angeles, the scene of the crime. Not the crime which Mr. Pratt was convicted of, but where the crime of his original conviction occurred--The Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building." The writ was signed February 28, and the system immediately began to throw up roadblock after roadblock to try and prevent a hearing of the evidence.

At the first hearing, the DA's office tried to use an obscure law to send the case to the California Supreme Court. After months of delay, the case was sent back to the L.A. courts. Then, last fall, all the judges in Los Angeles disqualified themselves because one of their own, Judge Richard Kalustian, who was the prosecutor in the 1972 trial, was one of the people who covered up the government's role in the frame-up. Along the way, the DA's office constantly tried to delay the proceedings and extend deadlines for filing court papers. In April 1996, California prison officials banned face-to-face interviews with prisoners-- making it more difficult for Geronimo's voice to be heard.

The exposure of a government frame-up in the case of Geronimo Pratt comes at a time when the system is trying to expand the powers of the political police. The FBI, the INS and other federal agencies have been given new powers to investigate people on the basis of their political affiliations. In Los Angeles, the Police Commission recently issued new guidelines for the top secret Anti-Terrorist Division, which would allow them to launch full-scale investigations of individuals who are not even suspected of committing crimes. The frame-up of Geronimo shows the vicious and deadly methods the government uses against radical political activists, especially revolutionaries.

Free Geronimo!

At the February 26, 1996 press conference to announce the filing of Geronimo's writ of habeas corpus, Ginny Pratt, Geronimo's sister, spoke movingly of Geronimo's struggle: "Geronimo is imbued with the dream of freedom. He wants to be free. He wants to spend time with his teenage son and his little daughter. Geronimo has never accepted the limitations inflicted upon him. They shackle and chain his body but not his mind. Geronimo has been humiliated, and he has been hauled from prison to prison for over 25 years. He's been caged in filthy little enclosures. He's been lied on, threatened, abused, misused. But let's make that Black history. Free Ji!"

A month after his sister spoke these words, Geronimo appeared in court in Los Angeles. The L.A. County Sheriffs had been keeping him in a cell with the lights on 24 hours a day. He came to court wrapped in chains. As soon as his hands were free, he saluted the small group of supporters allowed in the courtroom with a clenched fist.

Geronimo has refused to back down all these years. He should have been released on parole many years ago, but he was denied parole because he refused to "admit his guilt." The strength of his example has inspired people from many walks of life. Hundreds have joined demonstrations called by the International Committee to Free Geronimo Pratt. Filmmakers Melvin Van Peebles and Mario Van Peebles visited him regularly and attended court sessions to show their support. Jeanne Hamilton, the former juror, spoke out repeatedly for the man she once voted to convict. Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. and Stuart Hanlon, as well as others on the legal team, have fought for many years in the legal arena. Answering the call to "Uncage the Panther" many youth have stepped forward to join the fight to free Geronimo. One Black student from Oakland told the RW, "We need somebody out. There are still members of MOVE that are behind bars and we need to get them out. Geronimo should be free. He was a Black Panther, and I know that represents a lot historically as far as the militancy of the youth. We need him to be free!"

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