Imprisoned former Black Panther Party official Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt's efforts to have his murder conviction overturned suffered a potential setback Friday when a judge disqualified the entire Los Angeles County Superior Court bench from hearing the case.
Pratt's attorneys had been anticipating a hearing as early as next month on evidence they say points to Pratt's innocence.
But Superior Court Judge Michael A. Cowell ruled Friday that because fellow Superior Court Judge Richard P. Kalustian has become a potential witness at that hearing, Pratt's petition for a new trial must be heard by a judge from outside Los Angeles County.
The ruling means that Pratt's petition will be sent to the State Judicial Council in San Francisco, which will assign it to a new judge--a process that could take several months, Pratt's lawyers said. With the case moving back to Square 1, a new judge would not be obligated to even hold a hearing on new evidence, as Cowell had indicated he would.
Friday's ruling was Cowell's second attempt to remove himself from the case. In April, he sought to transfer it to the state Supreme Court--saying he did not have jurisdiction--only to have the high court return it.
Kalustian was the deputy district attorney who prosecuted Pratt in 1972 for the murder of schoolteacher Caroline Olsen on a Santa Monica tennis court. Cowell said Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., one of Pratt's lawyers, has accused Kalustian of lying under oath.
The judge cited a September article in California Lawyer magazine saying: "Cochran makes no secret of his intention to destroy Kalustian's character."
The magazine quoted Cochran, who was not in court Friday, as saying: "I don't know if Kalustian is morally capable of being a judge. He let his own witness lie to the jury and he has never spoken out."
Cowell's use of Cochran's comments to remove himself from the case "is an excuse," Stuart Hanlon, another Pratt attorney, said outside court.
"We've been accusing Kalustian of having knowingly put on perjured testimony since 1977," Hanlon said. "Judge Cowell is passing the buck because he doesn't want to make these hard decisions."
Pratt's efforts to have his conviction overturned gained momentum earlier this year when the name of a key witness against Pratt turned up on a list of confidential informants kept by the district attorney's office. That witness, former Panther Julius "Julio" Butler, had testified at Pratt's trial that he had never been an informant for law enforcement.
Pratt has maintained since his conviction that he was in Oakland attending Black Panther Party meetings when Olsen and her husband were shot during a robbery in December 1968.
He has insisted that the FBI knew he was in Oakland at the time because the bureau had him under surveillance--a contention supported by retired FBI Agent M. Wesley Swearingen.