Freedom Coming for Geronimo Pratt?

Against the Current, No. 68, May/June 1997

Karin Baker

TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, geronimo ji Jaga (Geronimo Pratt) was convicted of murder, and he’s been in prison ever since. According to the verdict, in 1968 he fatally shot a woman and injured her husband on a Santa Monica tennis court, after robbing the couple of eighteen dollars.

In fact, Geronimo Pratt was in Oakland when the murder was committed. A leader in the Black Panther Party, he often went to Oakland, the party’s headquarters. But as a Panther leader, he was a target of COINTELPRO, the FBI program to undermine opposition groups like the Black Panthers. Due to the involvement of the FBI, in cooperation with the Los Angeles Police Department and District Attorney’s office, Pratt was not given a fair trial, and has been incarcerated for almost twenty-seven years for a crime he did not commit.

Today, geronimo ji Jaga is closer than ever before to leaving prison a free man, with his name cleared. New evidence has been found that he did not receive a fair trial, evidence so blatant that a judge has finally agreed to a hearing on this question. If the judge can be convinced to rule that the trial was unfair, geronimo will be granted a new trial.

Pratt could have been released on parole years ago, if he had been willing to admit guilt and express remorse, but has preferred to maintain his innocence and re<->main in prison rather than acknowledge a crime he did not commit. Hopefully this persistence will work in his favor if he is granted a new trial.

The reason for Pratt’s conviction is obvious, if one knows anything about the FBI’s COINTELPRO, which used almost every possible means to “neutralize” the Panthers, as J. Edgar Hoover put it. But how was he convicted if he was actually in Oakland at the time of the murder?

To begin with, members of the Black Panther Party who were with Pratt in Oakland at the time of the murder were instructed by Huey Newton not to provide alibis for him. By the time of his trial, Pratt had been expelled from the Panthers for aligning himself with a faction opposed to Newton during a split in the party — a split likely instigated by COINTELPRO.

Since Newton’s death, six Panthers including Bobby Seale have sworn that Pratt was with them in Oakland at the time of the murder. However, at the time of the trial, geronimo’s lawyers could not provide the jury with these alibis.

Jurors were greatly influenced by the testimony of the surviving robbery victim, who said that Pratt was his wife’s killer. Juror Jeanne Hamilton changed her vote to guilty during deliberations when the jury foreman said to her: “If someone shot your husband, wouldn’t you remember his face?”

Jurors were not told that this witness had earlier identified a different man as the assailant. Hamilton says today that she would not have voted to convict Pratt had she known this, and other information that was kept from the jurors.

Also concealed from the jury was the fact the prosecution’s main witness Julius Butler, was an nformant — although Butler denied it during the trial. FBI documents released in 1979 revealed that Butler had more than thirty contacts with agents before Pratt’s trial. Several former Los Angeles police officers have since given sworn statements that Butler was their informant.

Clearly, Butler was an informant. By denying this during the trial, he perjured himself, putting his reliability as a witness into question. This is also significant because he appears to have helped to frame Pratt in exchange for benefits to himself. Felony charges against Butler at the time of the trial were later changed to misdemeanors with the help of the prosecutor; he also received money from law enforcement agents.

With all the evidence revealed after the trial, geronimo should have been successful in an appeal for a retrial. Yet it wasn’t until this past summer, in his fifth attempt, that his legal team convinced a judge to issue an order to “show cause,” whereby prosecution must come into court and convince the judge that Pratt’s conviction should be upheld.

The likely cause of this unexpected success is new evidence which surfaced while the judge was considering their request. Investigators found Julius Butler’s name in the Los Angeles DA’s office, on their own list of confidential informants! Although the FBI records available since 1979 had not impressed past judges, the fact that information
kept in the prosecutors’ own offices was not made available at the trial must have been too much to overlook.

The evidentiary hearing to show cause took place this past December and January, with closing arguments heard on March 13. At the time of the closing arguments, there were indications that the judge looks favorably on the appeal. Although he did not question or comment on the presentations of the defense team — which includes the famed Johnnie Cochran, Pratt’s lawyer since the first stage of appeal — the judge did comment on several arguments of the prosecution, suggesting that his perspective differs from theirs on at least some points.

Ginny Pratt, geronimo’s sister, said at a press conference during the hearing that she believes that after all these years, her brother will be free. We can hope, at last, that this is the beginning of the end of this travesty of justice.

ATC 68, May-June 1997