Magazine article Insight on the News

Geronimo's Last Stand?

Magazine article Insight on the News

Geronimo's Last Stand?

Article excerpt

Convicted murderer Elmer `Geronimo' Pratt has been denied parole 17 times. Now California's highest court will hear his request for a new trial.

During the O.J. Simpson trial, the sidewalks outside the Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building were crowded with chanting supporters and protestors who became a kind of studio audience. Now new slogans are being coined for what could become another national show trial: "Uncage the Panther -- let the brother go! Uncage the Panther -- free Geronimo!"

The reference is to Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt -- a decorated Vietnam veteran and munitions expert who became deputy minister of defense of the Black Panther Party and head of its Los Angeles chapter -- now serving a life sentence for murder.

In December 1968, in the course of a robbery, two men gunned down Caroline Olsen, a 27-year-old school-teacher, on a tennis court in Santa Monica, Calif. Later, in a raid on an arsenal maintained by the Panthers, police discovered a .45-caliber pistol they believed was used in the Olsen murder. The gun, along with a car spotted near the crime scene, led police to charge Pratt with the crime.

In July 1972, after 10 days of deliberations, a jury found Pratt guilty -- a crushing defeat for his lawyer, Johnnie Cochran, who went on to become part of the legal "dream team" that defended Simpson. Later, as a lawyer in the Los Angeles district attorney's office, Cochran recommended that Pratt be paroled. The request was denied, as have 16 others. The courts also have rejected four requests for a new trial.

A number of unions, including the National Education Association, call Pratt "America's foremost political prisoner"; Pratt and his partisans maintain that he is innocent, contending that on the night of the murder he was attending Panther meetings in Oakland, Calif. The prisoner's supporters, led by the Rev. James McCloskey of Centurion Ministries in Princeton, N.J., note that records of the FBI's wiretaps from that time are missing, a fact that they consider strange.

McCloskey claims to know the identities of the true killers: former Panthers Larry Hatter and Herbert Swilling. Unfortunately for Pratt, both are dead, as is former party boss Huey Newton. McCloskey also notes that the Pratt jury was not informed that Julius Butler, a key witness against Pratt, was his rival within the party as well as an FBI informant with a possible motive to discredit him. …

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