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Garcetti Should Drop Pratt Case

Justice would be ill-served by retrial of man imprisoned 27 years

June 02, 1997

Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt has now served 27 years behind bars for a murder conviction an Orange County judge now says was improperly obtained. Those 27 years exceed the time served by many who are fairly convicted of murder. That's reason enough for Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti to drop this case. But there are plenty of other reasons as well. How Pratt was convicted should stand as a lesson in the dangers of the ends-justify-the-means prosecutorial tactics sometimes used in highly publicized or politicized trials.

Pratt, now 49, was convicted in 1972 of murdering Caroline Olson on a Santa Monica tennis court during a 1968 robbery. Prosecutors argued later that Pratt was a street thug convicted on the basis of eyewitness testimony and ballistic and other evidence. But Pratt and a growing list of others have contended he was framed because of his association with the controversial Black Panther Party, whose members mixed revolutionary rhetoric with street-level services.

Key to Pratt's conviction was testimony from Julius "Julio" Butler, a former Black Panther who said Pratt had confessed the murder to him. But Pratt's lawyers were never told that Butler was a police informant, and the withholding of that evidence by prosecutors was central to the reversal of Pratt's conviction Thursday by Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey.

Had that evidence been disclosed to Pratt's attorneys, Dickey ruled, it would have "permitted potentially devastating cross-examination or other impeachment evidence regarding Butler" that might have produced a "different result" at trial. "Confidence in the verdict is undermined," Dickey concluded.

Garcetti can distance his office from the improper tactics of an earlier district attorney's office by declining to retry a man who has already spent more than half of his life in prison. Moreover, the D.A. would have almost no case in light of the disclosure about Butler and the fact that another key witness, Olson's husband, is now dead. (Before testifying, the husband had identified someone other than Pratt as the killer.) A retired FBI agent has further bolstered Pratt's case by maintaining that agents knew he was in Oakland during the Santa Monica murder because the bureau had him under surveillance.

In their zeal to convict Pratt, prosecutors may have allowed the true killer of Olson to remain unpunished. Garcetti should close the book on this shameful chapter in law enforcement history.

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