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Strange Fruit

LAST MAN STANDING The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt By Jack Olsen; Doubleday: 500 pp., $27.50

October 01, 2000|GREG GOLDIN | Greg Goldin is a contributing editor at L.A. Weekly. He reported on the Geronimo Pratt case from 1980 through 1997

During much of its 26-year run through the headlines and courtrooms of California, the case of Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt supplied a ready-made epitaph for the Black Panther Party. Pratt's incarceration for the "Tennis Court Murder," the coldblooded slaying of a 27-year-old second-grade schoolteacher and the attempted murder of her 31-year-old ex-husband, was proof that Huey Newton's armed cadre--of which Pratt had been a member in good standing--was nothing more than villains and perps. If you believed that Pratt received a fair trial and was guilty, you might have a hard time believing that he was a political prisoner, as many of his friends and supporters believe he was. After all, here was a man who robbed a woman of $18, commanded her and her companion to "lie down and pray," then opened fire with a .45 automatic. The viciousness of the deed led many to pass judgment on the entire Panther movement. They were nihilists indistinguishable from common criminals.

His champions, however, had a syllogism of their own. Hundreds of thousands of pages of government documents, released throughout his incarceration, showed that Pratt, while head of the Southern California Panther chapter, was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI for "neutralization," that the bureau had wiretap information that would have helped to reinforce his alibi that he was in Oakland, 400 miles from the crime scene, and that the prosecution's chief witness, ex-Panther Julius "Julio" Butler, was an FBI informant. This crucial evidence was withheld from Pratt's attorneys. The cops, not the Panthers, were the criminals.

In "Last Man Standing," veteran true-crime reporter Jack Olsen adopts this view, not to defend Pratt's ideals (oddly, politics rarely makes an appearance in this book about a "political" prisoner) but to dramatize the story of Pratt's attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., a man "who had gone into court as an advocate for a good and decent and innocent man--and lost."(Olsen's italics)

Cochran's client arrived in Los Angeles in the fall of 1968, a bright young Vietnam veteran who'd known little of civilian life outside rural Louisiana. While enrolled at UCLA, Pratt met Black Panther deputy minister of defense Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter, an ex-con whose gang-toughened stride and Mao-inflected rhetoric defined the Panther mystique. The encounter transformed the Catholic school boy Gerard into Geronimo. Within a few months Carter was gunned down, and Pratt was named the new head of the L.A. Panthers. Yet, like so many others of his radical contemporaries, he was soon dragged into seemingly endless courtroom battles--far from the ghetto neighborhoods where the party hoped to build its movement.

Shearing off the ideological overlay of this case isn't a bad idea. A startling number of names, dates, places and incidents pop up in a phantasmagoria of raw material, perhaps a million pages in all, much of it debris of an ancient war. Olsen's deft paring of these police reports, FBI documents, prison dossiers, witness statements and courtroom transcripts results in a swift, readable narrative. The prosecution's case was weak, and the verdict was hard-won and close. We learn that for eight years, Pratt was held in solitary confinement, in violation of his constitutional rights, merely because the Los Angeles County district attorney's office told prison authorities that Pratt "is a member of the [Black Panther Party] . . . which is violence prone." Twenty years of appeals failed--the evidence of FBI meddling and police misconduct dismissed by one particularly hostile state court jurist as "a handful of fog."

Then, in 1996, a district attorney investigator unearthed, in his department's own files, irrefutable proof that Julius Butler, who had testified that Pratt confessed the crime to him, was an informant. ("If the jury believes Julio Butler," Pratt's prosecutor had argued at the original trial, "Mr. Pratt is guilty, the case is over.") A year later, the 1972 conviction was overruled. In April of this year, a federal judge approved a $4.5-million settlement in Pratt's wrongful imprisonment suit.

Olsen accomplishes this broad summary of the case in short punchy chapters that breeze along, neatly conveying the suffering Pratt endured and the monumental legal effort it took to free him. But Olsen fails to suggest why Butler became a "confidential ghetto informant" or why he contrived to destroy Pratt's life. This has always been the central mystery of the Pratt case. It is too easy to portray Butler as an FBI pawn. The truth is, Pratt's trial for murder was a plot of a different sort, a snare sprung when Butler decided to get revenge against a man he had grown to detest.

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