A federal judge on Friday approved the $4.5-million settlement of a false-imprisonment suit filed by former Black Panther Party leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, who spent 25 years in prison for a murder he insists he did not commit.
The city of Los Angeles will pay $2.75 million of the settlement, and the U.S. Department of Justice will pay $1.75 million. The City Council has to approve payment of the city's share.
"This case shows that you can fight City Hall and win," one of Pratt's lawyers, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., told reporters at a news conference outside the federal courthouse in downtown Los Angeles.
"It may take a long time, but you can get justice," Cochran said.
Pratt's 1972 conviction in the murder of Caroline Olsen and the serious wounding of her husband, Kenneth, was overturned in 1997.
In reversing the conviction, Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey ruled that prosecutors at Pratt's murder trial had concealed evidence that could have led to an acquittal.
Dickey, who has a reputation as a conservative, law-enforcement-oriented judge, also publicly branded Julius C. "Julio" Butler, the key prosecution witness, a liar for denying that he had been a police informant.
Butler, a former Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy and a disgruntled ex-Panther, was the first person to implicate Pratt in Caroline Olsen's murder, which occurred during a 1968 robbery that yielded about $18 on a Santa Monica tennis court.
At the trial, Butler testified that Pratt, in a private conversation, had confessed to robbing and shooting the Olsens. Butler also denied on the witness stand that he had ever been a law enforcement informant.
But FBI documents released seven years after Pratt's conviction showed that Butler had been providing information to the bureau and to Los Angeles police for at least three years before Pratt was tried.
Dickey also found that a detective in the district attorney's office had given Butler $200 in 1972 to buy a gun, and that Butler was on a list of confidential district attorney's office informants.
A three-judge California Court of Appeal panel unanimously affirmed Dickey's decision in February 1999.
Pratt, 52, always has maintained that he is not guilty and that Los Angeles police officers and FBI agents framed him.
He said FBI agents had him under surveillance at the time and knew he was in the Bay Area attending a Black Panther Party meeting on the day two armed men assaulted the Olsens.