Iconic figure of the Black Power movement of the late 1960s, Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, died suddenly in early June at the age of 63.
Pratt was also an early leader of the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles in the 1970. His 1972 conviction for murder was overturned after 27 years in prison. The cause of Geronimo Pratt’s death in unconfirmed, but it is believed he passed due to a heart attack.
Pratt is best known for being convicted for the brutal murder of a white Los Angeles area high school teacher and the attempted murder of her husband at a park tennis court in Santa Monica. On Dec. 18, 1969, Caroline Olsen, 27, and her husband, Kenneth, 31, were robbed of $18 by two African American men and shot multiple times. Mr. Olsen, also a high school teacher, survived his wounds, including a .45-caliber bullet to the forehead, but his wife died of her injuries.
Pratt was indicted for the crime a year later, based solely on the information provided by an FBI and LAPD informant. Julius “Julio” Butler (no relation to this reporter) had been a member of the LA Black Panthers and a rival of Pratt’s for the leadership of the organization. Butler had been an LA County sheriff deputy prior to joining the Panthers.
During Pratt’s 1972 murder trial, Butler testified that Pratt had confided in him that he had gone on a “mission” earlier in the evening and that he had shot the Olsens.
Pratt had consistently maintained his innocence, stating that he had been in Oakland, 350 miles away, at the time of the shooting, attending Black Panther meetings that week. Pratt stated that the FBI knew this because they had him under surveillance at the time. M. Wesley Swearingen, an FBI agent at the time, acknowledged that the FBI knew Pratt was in the Bay Area at the time because the Panthers were under surveillance and had their phones tapped. Pratt was eventually indicted and went on trial in June 1972.
During the trial, Pratt’s defense, headed by the late Johnnie Cochran, attacked the credibility of the prosecution’s case, chiefly their star witness, Butler. Pratt claimed that Butler was an FBI informant and lying for the prosecution that he confessed to Butler about his involvement in the shootings. Butler, for his part, maintained that he was never a police informant. The jury deliberated for 10 days before finding Pratt guilty of Mrs. Olsen’s murder.
For the next 27 years, Geronimo Pratt fought to prove his innocence. In 1997, Orange County Superior County Judge Everett W. Dickey overturned Pratt’s conviction, after a plethora of evidence was introduced proving Pratt’s innocence and substantial prosecutorial misconduct during his trial. The evidence included FBI, LA police and District Attorney’s office had withheld evidence exonerating Pratt and that Butler was indeed a FBI and LAPD informant. Pratt’s release was appealed by then LA District Attorney Gil Garcetti, but was rejected by the court. The City of Los Angeles and the U.S. Department of Justice eventually settled a civil rights and false imprisonment lawsuit with Pratt for $4.5 million.
Geronimo Pratt’s case has become a symbol of police and prosecution misconduct and abuse of power against Black power activists of the 1960s and 70s. Records show the Black Panther Party had been targeted by the FBI’s COINTELPRO counterintelligence program and the LAPD’s Criminal Conspiracy Section in an attempt to discredit the organization and neutralize Pratt’s effectiveness. Judge Dickey blasted the prosecution in Pratt’s trial, ruling they suppressed evidence in favor of Pratt and knowingly paraded a line of witnesses that lied in open court, most notably Butler. It was revealed that exculpatory evidence was removed from police custody, and in at least the case of LAPD criminalist DeWayne Wolfer, evidence was fabricated and false evidence presented at trial.
After his release in 1997, Mr. Pratt returned to his hometown of Morgan City, La., where he spent part of his settlement money to support youth programs, and he also worked on the behalf of men and women believed to be wrongly convicted.
Pratt was a decorated war hero, having served two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he earned two Bronze Stars, two Purple Hearts, and the Silver Star, this nation’s third highest military honor.
Pratt reportedly passed away in Tanzania, Africa, where he had emigrated. While in prison, Pratt changed his name to Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, married Asahki Ji Jaga, and fathered two children. Pratt was previously married to Sandra Pratt, who was murdered in 1971. The couple had no children together, although Sandra was 8 months pregnant at the time of her death.