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Judge Reverses Conviction of Geronimo Pratt

May 30, 1997|EDWARD J. BOYER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A judge on Thursday reversed the quarter-century-old murder conviction of former Black Panther Party leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, culminating Pratt's prolonged struggle to win a new trial.

In a sharply worded opinion that was harshly critical of Los Angeles County prosecutors, Santa Ana Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey ruled that the district attorney's office suppressed evidence favorable to Pratt at his 1972 murder trial--evidence the judge said could have led to a different verdict.

The judge's ruling forces prosecutors to decide--possibly as early as next week--whether to free the 49-year-old Pratt, retry him or appeal Dickey's ruling. The district attorney's office Thursday would say only that it was reviewing the ruling, but staffers had acknowledged privately two months ago that they expected Dickey to rule against them.

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.

His case became a cause celebre for a range of supporters, including Amnesty International, elected officials, celebrities and a who's who of Los Angeles clergy.

Despite that support, four previous efforts by Pratt's attorneys to win a new trial were unsuccessful. This time, bolstered by new evidence about the key prosecution witness, they won a full hearing on whether Pratt had been unfairly convicted.

Such hearings are nearly impossible to obtain and harder to win, but on Thursday, Dickey ruled that the prosecution had wrongly withheld from defense lawyers evidence involving witness Julius "Julio" Butler and his activities as an informant for law enforcement.

Had Pratt's lawyers been aware of Butler's role, they "could have put the whole case in a different light" by more effectively challenging the credibility of the case against Pratt, Dickey ruled. The only witness to the shooting was the murder victim's husband, who was wounded.

"Failure to timely disclose it undermines confidence in the verdict," Dickey wrote of the informant's role.

He ordered that Pratt be released from Mule Creek State Prison in Ione and transferred to the Los Angeles County Jail in preparation for the district attorney's disposition of the case.

San Francisco attorney Stuart Hanlon, who has volunteered his services to Pratt for 24 years, was left grasping for words by Dickey's decision.

"It's too early to put the decision into perspective," Hanlon said in a telephone interview. "The immediate rush is that we won. The thing that keeps running through my head is that we win in Orange County, the heart of conservatism," where the case was transferred after all Los Angeles judges were disqualified. "It blows my mind."

Hanlon said Pratt was overwhelmed when informed of Dickey's decision, insisting that Hanlon read the judge's one-paragraph order releasing him from prison line by line.

When Pratt regained his composure, he told Hanlon: "All I want to do is to go home and see my kids and my grandkids."

Attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who has represented Pratt since his original trial, called Dickey's 13-page decision "one of the greatest moments of my life and the greatest moment of my legal career. It represents a 25-year fight for justice, which now is within reach for a man who has suffered for more than half his life for a crime he did not commit."

Jeanne Hamilton, a juror who helped convict Pratt but who now is convinced of his innocence, was overjoyed by Dickey's decision.

"Oh, my God, I just can't believe it, I can't believe it," she said.

Lay minister Jim McCloskey, who championed Pratt's cause, was exultant. "Justice has finally come for a man who has deserved it for 27 long hard years," McCloskey said from his residence in New Jersey. "It's fantastic and I can't wait to be in Los Angeles to see him walk out of those doors a free and vindicated man."

Dickey's decision did not deal with whether Pratt was guilty of slaying schoolteacher Caroline Olsen and critically wounding her husband, Kenneth, during a robbery that netted $18 on a Santa Monica tennis court in December 1968. The only question before the judge, an appointee of Gov. Ronald Reagan, was whether Pratt was denied a fair trial.

Pratt has long maintained that he was in Oakland attending Black Panther meetings at the time of the killing.

Pratt's supporters saw him as a political prisoner who had been framed by the FBI. That view was supported by retired FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen, who has maintained that agents knew Pratt was in Oakland when Olsen was killed because the bureau had him under surveillance.

Hanlon and Cochran said they will be in Los Angeles Superior Court on Monday seeking Pratt's release on bail while Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti decides whether to appeal.

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