[Ppnews] Geronimo Pratt case 40 years later

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Dec 23 13:03:04 EST 2008


Geronimo Pratt case 40 years later


Gunshots on a Santa Monica tennis court reverberated across legal landscape.

Note: Edward J. Boyer, now retired, covered the 
Elmer Gerard "Geronimo" Pratt case for The Times.

By Edward J. Boyer

On a clear, chilly December evening 40 years ago, 
Kenneth Olsen, head of the English department at 
Belmont High School, and his wife, Caroline, 
drove to Santa Monica's Lincoln Park tennis 
courts to meet another couple for a friendly doubles match.

The courts on Wilshire Boulevard at 7th Street 
were dark when the Olsens arrived about 8 p.m. 
Caroline went to the light meter to deposit a 
quarter. When she had trouble getting the meter to work, Kenneth went to help.

Just as the lights came on, the Olsens noticed 
two men walking toward them. As the pair drew 
closer, Kenneth Olsen realized both men were carrying pistols.

The men ordered the Olsens to put their hands up.

"We want your bread, man," Kenneth Olsen 
remembered one saying. "Give us your money. Where is it?"

He directed the robbers to his tennis bag and his 
wife's purse. They ordered the couple to the ground and started to leave.

Suddenly, they turned and opened fire.

Kenneth Olsen survived the fusillade; his wife 
did not. And those shots fired on Dec. 18, 1968, 
reverberated across Los Angeles' legal landscape for nearly three decades.

Just over three years later, former Black Panther 
Party leader Elmer Gerard "Geronimo" Pratt was 
sent to prison for the robbery and murder. Pratt 
had maintained at his trial that he was in 
Oakland, 341 miles away, attending Black Panther 
Party meetings when Caroline Olsen was killed.

Even by the standards of those turbulent times, 
it was a crime remarkable for its chillingly random and wanton character.

Describing the shooting at Pratt's trial, Kenneth 
Olsen said: "It came as a complete surprise to me 
that they actually fired. I didn't think they would."

He was hit five times--in the forehead and right 
hand, little finger, forearm and hip. Caroline 
Olsen was struck in the back and hip.

Olsen, then 31, checked on his wife as blood 
poured out of the wound in his forehead.

"Are you OK? Can you move?" he asked his wife.

She could not. And there was no one else around.

"I realized I had to get help for her and that I 
wouldn't last too long the way blood was flowing," Olsen testified.

He stumbled across Wilshire, barely avoiding an 
oncoming car, and made his way into the Broken 
Drum restaurant, where a waitress called for help.

Caroline Olsen, 27, a teacher at Stoner Avenue 
Elementary School, died later from her wounds.
The thugs who murdered her netted about $18.

Santa Monica police made little headway in their 
investigation of the coldblooded assault on the 
Olsens. But events within the Black Panther Party 
and efforts by a secret FBI counterintelligence 
program called COINTELPRO intersected in 1969 to 
change that. Pratt was convicted in what his 
defenders still call one of the most overtly 
political trials in Los Angeles' history.

A month after Caroline Olsen's murder, Panthers 
in Los Angeles themselves were left reeling by 
violence. Their charismatic leader, Alprentice 
"Bunchy" Carter, and his close aide, John 
Huggins, were killed Jan. 17, 1969 in a shootout on the UCLA campus.

Carter's death left a void, and Julius C. "Julio" 
Butler, a 35-year-old former Los Angeles County 
sheriff's deputy turned Panther, saw himself as 
Carter's logical successor. But party leaders in 
Oakland tapped Pratt, 20, a decorated Vietnam 
veteran, who had been a Panther for only about four months.

A bitter rivalry developed between Pratt and 
Butler. Pratt and other Panthers accused Butler 
of being a police informant, while Butler accused them of threatening his life.

By May 1969, Butler had begun talking to the FBI. 
On Aug. 5, he was expelled from the party, 
according to former Panthers and FBI documents 
obtained after Pratt’s conviction. He says he quit.

Five days later, he gave a letter to Los Angeles 
Police Sgt. DuWayne Rice, naming Pratt as Caroline Olsen's killer.

Butler had written on the outside of the sealed 
envelope that it should only be opened in the 
event of his death. He called it his "insurance 
letter," and prosecutors at Pratt's trial argued 
that Butler never intended for it to be made 
public, likening the envelope's contents to a deathbed declaration.

Information disclosed after Pratt's conviction, 
however, revealed that Butler's insurance letter 
was anything but a secret. FBI agents approached 
Rice on the street immediately after Butler gave 
him the sealed envelope. They demanded that the 
sergeant turn it over and referred to it as "evidence."

Rice refused, but later recalled that he wondered 
how the agents knew the envelope contained a 
letter since it was sealed, and how could they have known it was evidence.
More than a year later, in October 1970, Butler 
gave Rice permission to give the letter to his 
LAPD superiors. Butler explained to Rice that the 
FBI was "jamming" him and that he had told agents about the letter.

Butler's letter said Pratt had told him of a 
"mission" he was about to undertake on the night 
the Olsens were shot. The next day, Butler said, 
he pointed to a front-page story in The Times 
about the robbery and shooting. Pratt, Butler 
said, indicated that was the mission he had 
spoken of. Pratt’s defenders have always 
dismissed as ludicrous Butler’s contention that 
Pratt, who was extremely suspicious of Butler, would have confessed to him.

Butler's letter became the tool prosecutors 
needed in December 1970 to convince a grand jury 
to indict Pratt for Caroline Olsen's murder. The 
LAPD's Criminal Conspiracy Section had taken over 
the investigation from Santa Monica police. 
Pratt, who was being held on other charges, would be tried in June 1972.

Butler's letter also implicated a "Tyrone," and 
police arrested William Tyrone Hutchinson in 
1970. In a sworn statement given in 1991 to 
investigators working on Pratt's behalf, 
Hutchinson said he told police in 1970 that two 
men, Larry Hatter and Herbert Swilley, had 
bragged at a Panther office about being present 
at the tennis court when the Olsens were attacked.

Hutchinson said he had known Swilley and Hatter 
since childhood and knew them to be Butler's 
friends. Officers told him not to discuss what he 
heard Swilley and Hatter say, if he knew what was 
good for him, Hutchinson said.

Explaining why he had not come forward with the 
information earlier, Hutchinson said he took the 
officers' comments "to be a threat on my life, and I still do."

Pratt's defenders maintain that LAPD 
investigators did not pursue evidence pointing to 
other suspects because their primary objective 
was to "neutralize" Pratt and cripple the Panthers.
Friends of Swilley and Hatter have described both 
as heroin addicts who committed robberies to pay 
for drugs. Swilley was also known as a 
particularly violent killer. He was shot to death in 1972 during an argument.

Hatter was found dead in 1978 on the Pacific 
Tennis Court grounds in Santa Monica. He 
apparently fell while attempting to enter or 
leave a building during a burglary, impaling his skull on a fence.

The key evidence against Pratt consisted of 
Butler's testimony that he had obliquely 
confessed the crime, Kenneth Olsen's eyewitness 
testimony, ballistics tests from a .45-caliber 
pistol and the car allegedly used in the robbery/murder.

Although Butler denied on the witness stand that 
he had ever been a police informant, FBI files 
released after Pratt's conviction showed that 
Butler had been providing information on the 
Panthers to the bureau for three years before the trial.

Kenneth Olsen identified Pratt as one of the men 
who committed the murder. He told the Pratt jury 
that "one of the most distinguishing things about 
Mr. Pratt is his intensive eyes," calling them 
"very piercing and very penetrating."

Neither the jury nor Pratt's lawyers knew at the 
time that Olsen earlier had identified another 
suspect as his wife's killer. The public defender 
who had represented that suspect recalled after 
Pratt's conviction that Olsen had said after that 
earlier identification: "The voice did it."
In fact, the first man Olsen identified as the 
assailant had been in jail the night the couple was attacked.

Had the jury known about Olsen's earlier 
identification, "I think that alone would have 
changed our mind," said Jeanne Hamilton, a juror at Pratt’s 1972 trial.

LAPD criminalist DeWayne Wolfer testified at 
Pratt's trial  that firing pin marks on shell 
casings found on the tennis court matched those 
on shells fired from a .45-caliber pistol seized 
from a Panther house. In an earlier trial, a 
California appellate court ruled that Wolfer had 
"negligently presented false demonstrative 
evidence in support of his ballistics testimony." 
Another forensic scientist has characterized 
Wolfer's testimony as lacking "credibility in the 
minds of most forensic scientists."

The only other person to tie Pratt to the .45 was Butler.

The presence of Pratt's car at the murder scene 
is a point even some of his defenders 
acknowledge. A witness saw the gunmen flee in a 
red and white Pontiac GTO convertible with 
out-of-state plates--a description matching Pratt's 1967 car.

Several witnesses, however, testified that 
Pratt's car was used not only by other Panthers, 
but by any number of people associated with the 
party--including Butler on several occasions. 
Pratt, his defenders said, had no idea who used 
his car on the day of the murder because he was 
in Oakland, where he had gone earlier in the week.

Pratt always has insisted that he was in Oakland 
attending Black Panther Party meetings when the 
Olsens were attacked. Years later, retired FBI 
agent M. Wesley Swearingen said the bureau knew 
Pratt was in the Bay Area then because the 
Panthers were under surveillance and phones at 
their party headquarters were tapped.

Pratt's defense presented several witnesses who 
placed him in Oakland during the party meetings. 
But they could not--3 1/2 years 
later--specifically place Pratt in the Bay Area 
on Dec. 18, the day of the crime.

What turned out to be one of the most damaging 
pieces of evidence against Pratt was introduced 
by the defense. Olsen had described his 
assailants as clean shaven, but several other 
witnesses--including Butler--said they always had seen Pratt with facial hair.
Pratt's lawyers introduced a Polaroid photograph, 
supposedly taken around Christmas 1968, showing 
Pratt with a goatee, which they argued he could 
not have grown in the week after the murder.

"We took the word of Pratt's brother, Chuck 
Pratt, about this picture," Johnnie L. Cochran 
Jr., one of Pratt's attorneys at his original 
trial, said. "We didn't consider it really 
important. We thought it was clear to everybody 
that Pratt had a goatee, that he was not clean shaven as Mr. Olsen said."

But that photo was more important than Pratt's 
defense team could have imagined. Prosecutors 
called a Polaroid representative who testified 
that the picture could not have been taken in 
December 1968, because the film used in the photo 
was not manufactured until May 1969.
That testimony was devastating. One juror said it 
made him begin to question other parts of the 
defense case. Another said jurors argued during 
deliberations that if Pratt had lied about the 
photo, he could have lied about other events.

The jury deliberated for 10 days before it returned its guilty verdict.

Pratt, who now uses the name Geronimo ji Jaga, 
served two years in Los Angeles County Jail and 
25 years in prison--the first eight in solitary 
confinement--before Orange County Superior Court 
Judge Everett W. Dickey overturned his conviction 
in 1997 and released him on bail.

The case was moved to Orange County after the 
entire Los Angeles Superior Court bench was 
recused because one of its members, Judge Richard 
P. Kalustian, who as a deputy district attorney 
prosecuted Pratt, was to be called as a witness.

Dickey, by all accounts a conservative, law 
enforcement-oriented judge, publicly branded 
Butler, the prosecution's key witness, a liar and 
ruled that Los Angeles County prosecutors had 
suppressed evidence favorable to Pratt's defense.

"The importance of Butler to the prosecution 
cannot be denied," Dickey later wrote in his 
decision. He noted that Pratt was never a suspect 
until police learned the content of Butler's 
letter, and that Kalustian "emphasized Butler's 
importance in argument both to the trial judge and to the jury."

At Pratt's trial in 1972, Kalustian had summed up 
just how important a witness Butler was: "Julio 
Butler has testified in this court under oath and 
to the jury to a confession that Mr. Pratt made 
to him that admits all of the elements of the 
offense. If the jury believes Julio Butler, Mr. 
Pratt is guilty. The case is over if they believe that."

Butler had denied under oath that he had ever 
been an informant for law enforcement, saying 
"the connotation (of) informant means a snitch, 
and I have never been in the world a snitch."
But in the hearing before Dickey, prosecutors 
revealed that Butler’s name had turned up in a 
confidential informant file kept by the Los 
Angeles County district attorney's office.

San Francisco attorney Stuart Hanlon, one of 
Pratt's lawyers, called the informant card on 
Butler a "smoking gun," saying the district 
attorney's office knew during Pratt's trial that Butler was an informant.

"The fact is that he was an actual informant, and 
no one said anything about it in court," Hanlon 
said. "The informant status of a main prosecution 
witness is always reversible error."

Three jurors, including Hamilton, told Jim 
McCloskey, whose Centurion Ministries 
independently investigated Pratt’s case, they 
would never have convicted Pratt had they known 
Butler­who went on to become a lawyer and 
chairman of the board at Los Angeles' First 
African Methodist Episcopal Church--was an informant.

In overturning Pratt's conviction, Dickey ruled 
that despite Butler's denials, he had been an FBI 
informant for at least three years before the 
trial. Dickey also ruled that Butler had been an 
informant for the LAPD and for the very agency 
that prosecuted Pratt--the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

A detective in the district attorney’s office 
gave Butler $200 to buy a gun several months 
before Pratt's trial, Dickey noted, even though 
Butler was a convicted felon who could not legally possess a firearm.

Several law enforcement officers knew Butler 
carried the gun, even though doing so was a 
felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison, Dickey said.

Pratt's defense lawyers, Dickey said, were not 
given information needed to show Butler's motive 
for naming Pratt as Caroline Olsen's killer. Had 
Pratt's lawyers known of Butler's activities, 
they could have devastated his credibility on 
cross-examination, the judge said.

After Pratt’s release, then-Los Angeles Dist. 
Atty. Gil Garcetti appealed Dickey’s decision. 
But one veteran prosecutor said parts of 
Garcetti's appeal were difficult for experienced trial attorneys to fathom.

"There appears to be a whole bunch of stuff out 
there that was not turned over to the defense 
that should have been--like guys buying a guy a 
gun," he said. "Had this been turned over, would 
it have affected the outcome? That question 
doesn't pass the straight-face test."

Garcetti lost his appeal and Pratt settled a 
false imprisonment and civil rights lawsuit 
against the city of Los Angeles and the FBI for 
$4.5 million. Pratt now splits his time between 
Morgan City, La., his home town, and east Africa. 
He has used part of his settlement to support 
projects for young people in Morgan City and a 
community founded by former Panthers in Tanzania.

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