D.A. Appeals Decision to Release Ex-Black Panther
The decision overturning Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt’s murder conviction should be reversed, Los Angeles prosecutors said Friday, arguing that “nothing points to Pratt’s innocence; everything points to his guilt.”
In a 202-page appeal filed Friday, prosecutors challenged Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey’s decision that led to the former Black Panther Party leader’s release on bail in July. Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti said: “Nothing that has been learned about this case in the 25 years since it was tried, or in the 29 years since Caroline Olsen was murdered, warrants a new trial.”
Pratt was convicted in 1972 of shooting Olsen to death and critically wounding her husband, Kenneth, during a 1968 robbery on a Santa Monica tennis court. Pratt has maintained his innocence, saying he was in Oakland attending party meetings when Caroline Olsen was killed.
His attorneys argued that Pratt was the target of the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO operation aimed at “neutralizing” leaders in the African American community.
The arguments in Garcetti’s appeal “are the same ones Judge Dickey rejected,” said San Francisco attorney Stuart Hanlon, Pratt’s lead appellate lawyer. “They can’t accept that they lost. The real question is, why are they doing this? No one except four or five D.A.s and a couple of old cops want Geronimo back in prison. Everybody believes he was framed. This appeal is what we’ve come to expect from the district attorney’s office.”
After a monthlong hearing, beginning in December 1996, Dickey ruled that prosecutors had suppressed evidence favorable to Pratt at his murder trial--evidence the judge said could have led to a different verdict.
Dickey ruled that prosecutors had wrongly withheld from Pratt’s defense team evidence pointing to the extent to which a key prosecution witness, Julius C. “Julio” Butler, had been an informant for law enforcement.
Pratt’s lawyers “could have put the whole case in a different light” by more effectively challenging Butler’s credibility had they been aware of his role, Dickey ruled.
Butler, a former Panther and Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy, testified that Pratt had confessed the shootings to him. Butler denied that he had ever been a law enforcement informant.
Dickey wrote in his opinion reversing Pratt’s conviction that Butler lied on the witness stand and that he provided “information about the Black Panther Party and individuals associated with it to law enforcement agencies on a confidential basis” for at least three years before Pratt’s trial.
In his appeal, however, Garcetti said that whatever evidence that has surfaced to impeach Butler’s testimony “does not establish that Butler was a police informant. At most it demonstrates that Butler . . . used his law enforcement associations to protect himself from a federal gun possession charge.”
Garcetti argues in the appeal that questions about Butler’s credibility do not undermine testimony from two other witnesses against Pratt: Barbara Reed, a hobby shop owner, and Kenneth Olsen.
“With or without Pratt’s confession to Butler, the evidence that he killed Caroline Olsen is overwhelming,” Garcetti’s appeal says.
During the hearing to determine if Pratt’s conviction would be overturned, Dickey questioned just how overwhelming that evidence could have been to the jury that convicted Pratt--a jury that twice reported being deadlocked.
Hanson said Pratt’s legal team will ask the 2nd District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles for 90 days to prepare a formal response to Garcetti’s appeal.