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Pratt Reportedly Settles Case for $4.5 Million

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Former Black Panther Party leader Elmer Gerard “Geronimo” Pratt, who spent 25 years in prison until his murder conviction was overturned in 1997, has settled his false imprisonment and civil rights lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles and the FBI, his lawyers said Tuesday.

None of the attorneys contacted would comment on the terms, but sources familiar with the negotiations said the case was settled for $4.5 million.

“It’s a fair deal for everybody,” said attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., who represented Pratt at his 1972 murder trial and was co-counsel during the hearing leading to reversal of that conviction.

“In the final analysis, the city of Los Angeles, through City Atty. James Hahn, and the federal government stepped up to the plate and did the right thing,” Cochran said.

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The city’s share of the settlement, which sources put at $2.75 million, must be approved by the City Council. The federal government’s share of $1.75 million already has been agreed upon by officials in Washington, one source said.

Attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice could not be reached for comment.

Pratt, 53, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, has always maintained that he was innocent and that he was framed by Los Angeles police officers and FBI agents.

Those agents, Pratt has steadfastly argued, had him under surveillance and knew through illegal wiretaps that he was in the Bay Area attending Black Panther Party meetings in December 1968, when schoolteacher Caroline Olsen was fatally wounded in Santa Monica.

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The FBI has argued that Pratt was never recorded on those wiretaps, made by Oakland police.

Olsen’s husband, Kenneth, was also critically wounded when two armed men robbed him and his wife of about $18 on a tennis court and then shot them.

A jury deliberated for 10 days before finding Pratt guilty. He spent his first eight years in prison in solitary confinement.

“The people responsible for Geronimo’s false imprisonment and frame-up have admitted their liability and paid a substantial amount of money for what they did to Pratt,” said attorney Stuart Hanlon, who spent 23 years pressing Pratt’s appeals.

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“When I started in 1974, I was considered a crazy law student alleging all these crazy things that had happened to Pratt,” Hanlon said. “No one believed it except Geronimo and me. Now, after all these years, we know it’s all true.”

Although Hanlon called the settlement “vindication for me and Geronimo,” he added: “There’s no justice [in] waiting all that time to get him out of prison.”

Pratt now uses the name Geronimo ji Jaga and has moved back to Morgan City, La., his hometown, where he is working with a community coalition to convert the abandoned, once-segregated school he attended into a youth center.

“When I was released from prison, I was shocked to see that my alma mater was being turned into a jail,” he said. “My reaction was that this was adding insult to injury.”

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He said he had wanted to use his lawsuit as a platform to expose what he called the FBI’s “evil scheme, that secret war that was waged” against the Panthers and members of other militant African American organizations in the 1960s and 1970s.

“But the wisdom of my lawyers prevailed,” he said.

Pratt was first implicated in Caroline Olsen’s murder by Julius C. “Julio” Butler, a disgruntled ex-Panther and former Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy.

Butler testified at Pratt’s trial that Pratt, in a private conversation, had confessed to robbing and shooting the Olsens. Butler also vehemently denied on the witness stand that he had ever been an informant for law enforcement.

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Seven years after Pratt’s conviction, however, FBI documents released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that Butler had been providing information to the bureau and to Los Angeles police for at least three years before Pratt was tried.

Neither Pratt’s jury--which twice reported itself deadlocked--nor his defense attorneys had known of Butler’s activities as an informant.

Still, Pratt remained in prison for 18 more years, losing effort after frustrating effort to gain his freedom.

As Pratt’s sixth attempt to have his conviction reversed was making its way through the courts in 1996, Butler told a district attorney’s investigator that in 1972 he had been given $200 by a member of the district attorney’s staff to buy a gun.

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The investigator also found that Butler was listed in an index of confidential informants maintained in the district attorney’s office--the same office that had prosecuted Pratt.

That gun and index card, along with Butler’s activities as an informant for the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI, became critical pieces of evidence in Pratt’s successful attempt to have his conviction reversed.

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

Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey overturned Pratt’s conviction, ruling that prosecutors at his 1972 murder trial had concealed evidence that could have led to an acquittal.

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Dickey, by all accounts a conservative, law enforcement-oriented judge, also publicly branded Butler a liar for denying that he had been a police informant.

A three-judge California Court of Appeal panel unanimously affirmed Dickey’s decision in February 1999.

Writing for the 2nd District panel, Justice William Masterson said: “Cross-examination has been described as the ‘greatest legal engine ever invented for the discovery of the truth. . . .’ Pratt was not in a position to effectively use this right in an attempt to undermine Butler’s credibility.”


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