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Hollywood’s Doors Open for Pratt

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One challenge former Black Panther Party leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt has faced since his recent release from jail after more than a quarter-century in custody is dealing with his newfound celebrity status.

Pratt found himself besieged by huge crowds of well-wishers for several days after his June 10 release on $225,000 bail following the overturning of his conviction for a murder he insists he did not commit. Signing autographs, he told supporters, “It’s not about the Hollywood thing. That’s not what’s important.”

But according to Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., one of Pratt’s attorneys, Hollywood is taking Pratt very seriously.

Cochran said late Monday that numerous offers have been received from filmmakers who want to make a movie about Pratt, who was sentenced to 25 years to life in 1972 for the murder of schoolteacher Caroline Olsen and the critical wounding of her husband during a 1968 robbery on a Santa Monica tennis court.

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The interested producers, writers and directors--described by Cochran as “major and prominent"--have pitched TV movies and feature films about Pratt. Cochran declined to be more specific other than to say that 10 to 12 inquiries have come from white and African American filmmakers.

There are also offers for a book deal and speaking engagements around the country. Pratt plans to speak next weekend in New Orleans at the Essence Music Festival, where he will address the National Black Leadership Forum, Cochran said.

“This has all been pretty exciting,” Cochran said. “There has been a lot of broad-based support for him. The interest has been exceedingly positive, and exceeded what I expected.”

The offers have been pouring in while the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office appeals the May 29 reversal of Pratt’s conviction by Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey, who ruled that prosecuting attorneys had suppressed evidence that could have led the jury at Pratt’s murder trial to a different verdict. Prosecutors have said they are still convinced that Pratt is guilty.

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Sandy Gibbons, spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office, said Tuesday that the appeal process to the state Court of Appeal “could take quite a long time.” If the appeal is upheld, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti would have to determine whether to retry Pratt or drop the case.

Cochran chuckled when asked if the possibility of a new trial could affect Pratt’s prospects.

“That’s all over, it’s not even an issue,” he said. “Nobody is taking that seriously. No one even cares about that.”

Cochran said a decision will be made this week about an agent to represent the package of him, Pratt and San Francisco attorney Stuart Hanlon, who has dedicated himself to Pratt’s case for 23 years. “We’re all going to be together,” Cochran said.

Meanwhile, those familiar with Pratt’s case said there is no shortage of dramatic elements.

Since being taken into custody, Pratt has never wavered from his insistence that he is innocent. He said he was in Oakland attending Black Panther Party meetings at the time of the murder. The FBI was aware he was in the Bay Area because it had him under surveillance--an assertion that is supported by retired FBI Agent M. Wesley Swearingen.

A decorated Vietnam War veteran with two Purple Hearts, two Bronze Stars and a Silver Star, Pratt had failed in four previous petitions to have his conviction overturned. He spent the first eight of his 25 years in prison in solitary confinement.

When Pratt was released on bail, he was cheered at several rallies, attended the middle school graduation of his teenage son and was reunited with his 94-year-old mother.

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“This is a great story with a real message about a person who showed real character and integrity,” Cochran said.

Times staff writer Edward J. Boyer contributed to this story.


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