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COLUMN ONE : Past Haunts Ex-Panther in New Life : Julius Butler's testimony helped convict Geronimo Pratt of murder. Now, the First A.M.E. Church official's prominence upsets some who say Butler was an FBI informant--a claim he denies.

May 24, 1994|EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Had the jury known about Olsen's earlier identification, Hamilton said, "I think that alone would have changed our mind." She said she regrets she did not counter the jury foreman, a second-year law student, when he sternly looked her in the eye and asked: "If somebody shot your husband, wouldn't you remember their face?"

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After Pratt was convicted, Butler volunteered for former City Councilman David Cunningham's 1973 election campaign.

A year or two later, Cunningham said in an interview, he hired Butler as a field deputy, adding that Butler was very effective in getting police to crack down on drug dealers in his district.

In 1981, Butler was arrested for allegedly threatening a man with a pistol and kicking him. He resigned from Cunningham's staff and pleaded no contest to charges of carrying a loaded weapon and driving under the influence of alcohol. He was sentenced to probation and fined.

Two years later, Butler was hired as a paralegal at Bet Tzedek, a legal services program for the poor. He attended West Los Angeles College and then law school. He was admitted to the State Bar in 1989 and became a staff attorney at Bet Tzedek.

So far, Pratt's lawyers have lost every appeal of his conviction. In 1980, the state's 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled, in part, that Pratt failed to prove his contention that he was framed by FBI agents and Los Angeles police.

Periodic demonstrations demanding Pratt's freedom continue. Butler's name is prominently raised as a symbol of the alleged betrayal of Pratt, but he remains secure near the top of one of Los Angeles' symbols of social justice--First A.M.E.

Earlier this month, some of the January demonstrators met with church officials, but both sides agreed not to publicly discuss the meeting.

However, a source close to the negotiations, who requested anonymity, said the church had offered to ask Butler to write a letter to the state parole board, urging that Pratt be released. Some of Pratt's supporters say they would be satisfied with nothing less than a letter from Butler that recants his testimony and exonerates Pratt.

Pratt's supporters say the church has repeatedly described their efforts to hold Butler accountable as an attack on First A.M.E.

"The church keeps putting (Butler) up front and trying to make the community accept him as some kind of new black leader or something," said former Panther Roland Freeman, one of the January protest's organizers. "That is not going to work. The issue is that Geronimo has been in jail for 23 years, and one of the persons who was instrumental in it is Julio Butler."

Pratt's only opportunity for freedom appears to rest with McCloskey's report and Garcetti's review of the case. The district attorney's office says it has set no deadline for completion of he review. "The only decision now is to determine if there is anything in the material (McCloskey) has given us that would be worthy of an investigation," said Assistant Dist. Atty. Dan Murphy.

Said former Pratt attorney Cochran: "I hope Garcetti will do the right thing--at least a hearing or a new trial.

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