New Attorney Denied for Pratt at Parole Hearing : Prisons: Kathleen Cleaver won’t be able to represent the convicted Black Panther at session Wednesday. Official says more notice was needed to add a new lawyer.
The State Board of Prison Terms has denied former Black Panther Party official Kathleen Cleaver permission to represent her onetime Panther colleague Elmer G. (Geronimo) Pratt at his parole hearing this week, Cleaver said Monday.
Pratt, 46, has been in prison for more than 23 years, serving a life sentence for the fatal shooting of a Santa Monica woman during a 1968 robbery that netted less than $50. His supporters and a retired FBI agent say he was framed as part of the FBI’s effort to “neutralize” the Panthers.
His 13th parole hearing, scheduled for Wednesday, comes against a backdrop of renewed efforts to win his release. Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti is reviewing the case, prompted by a detailed report from crusading lay minister Jim McCloskey who vigorously argues Pratt’s innocence.
Those calling for Pratt’s release over the years have included Amnesty International, members of Congress and a cross-section of Los Angeles’ most prominent clergy and civil rights leaders.
None of Pratt’s attorneys believe his release will be ordered Wednesday, however, and a spokeswoman for Garcetti said the office will oppose parole.
Cleaver, who said she was denied permission to visit Pratt on Sunday, called the decision blocking her from representing him retaliatory.
“First they don’t want me visiting him, and they don’t want me in the room representing him,” said Cleaver, a Yale law graduate and a law professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
Pratt’s long-time attorney, Stuart Hanlon of San Francisco, said he received a letter from Board of Prison Terms chairman James W. Neilsen late Monday, saying Cleaver “will not be permitted to participate in the hearing but will be permitted to observe it from an adjacent room equipped with audio and video monitors.”
“I am flabbergasted,” Hanlon said. “I’ve dealt with the prison system for 20 years. I lost track of the fear they have . . . of their image of Kathleen Cleaver and Geronimo Pratt.”
He said Pratt requested that Cleaver represent him. “They’re really trying to silence this woman,” he said.
Cleaver flew to Los Angeles from Algiers to testify at Pratt’s 1972 trial, supporting his defense that he was in Oakland on Dec. 18, 1968, the day Caroline Olsen was shot on a tennis court in Santa Monica.
Hanlon said at a news conference Monday that there would be no hearing without Cleaver as Pratt’s attorney. He softened that position later in the day, saying he and Cleaver will meet with Pratt at the prison today. Their decision about participating in the hearing will be based on what they feel is best for Pratt, Hanlon said.
State Board of Prison Terms Executive Theodore R. Rich Sr. said all along there would be a hearing. “We will have a hearing whether Mr. Hanlon, Mr. Pratt or anyone else assembles,” he said.
Rich said he has “bent over backward” to give Pratt every opportunity to present his case. He noted that the board allowed an attorney from Washington to represent Pratt at his last parole hearing.
Rich said security requires time to accommodate a change in lawyers because the new lawyer has to be cleared to enter a prison.
Hanlon said he knows of no written rule saying an inmate cannot be represented by two lawyers. “There certainly is no kind of written rule that they need some kind of notice way in advance,” he said. “They were aware of Kathleen coming 10 days ago.”
Pratt has steadfastly maintained his innocence, saying he was in Oakland on the date of the murder. Pratt insists that the FBI had him under surveillance on that date, and that its wiretap logs would show that he was in Oakland.
Retired FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen says that Pratt was framed. Swearingen said he saw authorization for the wiretaps. But no logs from those taps have ever been produced.
Cleaver testified in 1972 that he was in Oakland attending party meetings when Olsen and her husband were shot and robbed on a Santa Monica tennis court.
Interest in the case has grown over the past several months since Garcetti agreed to review Pratt’s conviction. McCloskey, whose efforts led to the release of Clarence Chance and Benny Powell in 1992, argued Pratt’s innocence in a detailed report submitted to Garcetti last year. Chance and Powell spent 17 years in prison after they were wrongfully convicted of murdering a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy.
“We’re calling on the district attorney’s office to release (Pratt) as they did with Chance and Powell,” said attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., one of two lawyers who represented Pratt at his trial in 1972. “They have the wrong man. They know they have the wrong man. No one has enough courage and integrity to come forward and say: ‘Let him out.’ ”
And no one from the district attorney’s office will do that on Wednesday. A spokeswoman said Garcetti’s office will oppose parole for Pratt as it has at all of his earlier hearings.
Pratt was implicated in Olsen’s murder by former Panther Julius C. Butler, who testified that Pratt confessed to the crime to him. Butler, now an attorney who serves as chairman of the board at First African Methodist Episcopal Church, also testified that he never had been an informant for the FBI.
FBI documents released later, however, showed that Butler had more than 30 documented contacts with FBI agents in a two-year period, and that the bureau classified him as a “probationary racial informant.”