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Strange Fruit

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Greg Goldin is a contributing editor at L.A. Weekly. He reported on the Geronimo Pratt case from 1980 through 1997

During much of its 26-year run through the headlines and courtrooms of California, the case of Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt supplied a ready-made epitaph for the Black Panther Party. Pratt’s incarceration for the “Tennis Court Murder,” the coldblooded slaying of a 27-year-old second-grade schoolteacher and the attempted murder of her 31-year-old ex-husband, was proof that Huey Newton’s armed cadre--of which Pratt had been a member in good standing--was nothing more than villains and perps. If you believed that Pratt received a fair trial and was guilty, you might have a hard time believing that he was a political prisoner, as many of his friends and supporters believe he was. After all, here was a man who robbed a woman of $18, commanded her and her companion to “lie down and pray,” then opened fire with a .45 automatic. The viciousness of the deed led many to pass judgment on the entire Panther movement. They were nihilists indistinguishable from common criminals.

His champions, however, had a syllogism of their own. Hundreds of thousands of pages of government documents, released throughout his incarceration, showed that Pratt, while head of the Southern California Panther chapter, was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI for “neutralization,” that the bureau had wiretap information that would have helped to reinforce his alibi that he was in Oakland, 400 miles from the crime scene, and that the prosecution’s chief witness, ex-Panther Julius “Julio” Butler, was an FBI informant. This crucial evidence was withheld from Pratt’s attorneys. The cops, not the Panthers, were the criminals.

In “Last Man Standing,” veteran true-crime reporter Jack Olsen adopts this view, not to defend Pratt’s ideals (oddly, politics rarely makes an appearance in this book about a “political” prisoner) but to dramatize the story of Pratt’s attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., a man “who had gone into court as an advocate for a good and decent and innocent man--and lost.”(Olsen’s italics)

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Cochran’s client arrived in Los Angeles in the fall of 1968, a bright young Vietnam veteran who’d known little of civilian life outside rural Louisiana. While enrolled at UCLA, Pratt met Black Panther deputy minister of defense Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, an ex-con whose gang-toughened stride and Mao-inflected rhetoric defined the Panther mystique. The encounter transformed the Catholic school boy Gerard into Geronimo. Within a few months Carter was gunned down, and Pratt was named the new head of the L.A. Panthers. Yet, like so many others of his radical contemporaries, he was soon dragged into seemingly endless courtroom battles--far from the ghetto neighborhoods where the party hoped to build its movement.

Shearing off the ideological overlay of this case isn’t a bad idea. A startling number of names, dates, places and incidents pop up in a phantasmagoria of raw material, perhaps a million pages in all, much of it debris of an ancient war. Olsen’s deft paring of these police reports, FBI documents, prison dossiers, witness statements and courtroom transcripts results in a swift, readable narrative. The prosecution’s case was weak, and the verdict was hard-won and close. We learn that for eight years, Pratt was held in solitary confinement, in violation of his constitutional rights, merely because the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office told prison authorities that Pratt “is a member of the [Black Panther Party] . . . which is violence prone.” Twenty years of appeals failed--the evidence of FBI meddling and police misconduct dismissed by one particularly hostile state court jurist as “a handful of fog.”

Then, in 1996, a district attorney investigator unearthed, in his department’s own files, irrefutable proof that Julius Butler, who had testified that Pratt confessed the crime to him, was an informant. (“If the jury believes Julio Butler,” Pratt’s prosecutor had argued at the original trial, “Mr. Pratt is guilty, the case is over.”) A year later, the 1972 conviction was overruled. In April of this year, a federal judge approved a $4.5-million settlement in Pratt’s wrongful imprisonment suit.

Olsen accomplishes this broad summary of the case in short punchy chapters that breeze along, neatly conveying the suffering Pratt endured and the monumental legal effort it took to free him. But Olsen fails to suggest why Butler became a “confidential ghetto informant” or why he contrived to destroy Pratt’s life. This has always been the central mystery of the Pratt case. It is too easy to portray Butler as an FBI pawn. The truth is, Pratt’s trial for murder was a plot of a different sort, a snare sprung when Butler decided to get revenge against a man he had grown to detest.

In the summer of 1969, Pratt booted Butler out of the party after Butler cut a mysterious deal with the L.A. County district attorney that allowed him to avoid any prison time upon pleading guilty to four violent felonies. The D.A. never let Panthers off scot-free, not without extracting a favor in exchange, and Pratt, sensing a sham, had labeled Butler a “snitch.” Three decades later, it may seem a silly insult, but in 1969, it was a public humiliation, culminating with his expulsion from the Panthers, that shattered Butler’s self-image. Like many radicals, Butler, the Panthers’ dethroned head of security, was vain and coveted power. He wanted the rest of the world to see him as he saw himself. He wanted to slam Pratt in return.

In the days following his expulsion, Butler summoned the FBI to a street corner two blocks from his home, where they watched him give an LAPD officer a letter naming Pratt as the “Tennis Court Murderer.” When the federal agents approached the officer demanding the letter, the officer refused, but three days later, Butler divulged the contents of this letter directly to FBI Special Agent Richard Wallace Held. The street corner hand-off eventually led to Pratt’s arrest and conviction.

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What gave this revenge scheme a whiff of a political conspiracy was, of course, the willingness of various local and federal police to remain silent while Butler lied at Pratt’s trial when he said he was not an informant. The trickle, then landslide, of revelations that came close but failed then to exonerate Pratt only hardened him and his attorneys in the belief that the “case has been, since its inception, a cover-up.”

Reducing Butler to a marionette suits the leitmotif of “Last Man Standing.” Indeed, the facts here are often manipulated to support the view that Pratt and Cochran were naifs enmeshed in a sinister government intrigue. For example, Olsen re-creates the following dialogue between Charles Hollopeter, Pratt’s lead trial counsel, and co-counsel Cochran:

“ ‘Geronimo . . . says everybody knew Butler was a paid agent for the LAPD and the D.A. and probably the FBI. But I can’t get the D.A.’s office to admit it.’

“ ‘Shouldn’t that have come out in discovery?’ Cochran said in a reference to the pretrial exchange of information and evidence.”

Cochran’s naivete is a little hard to believe. When he took on the Pratt case, he had just spent a year battling the Los Angeles County D.A., helping to acquit 16 Panthers of felony conspiracy charges arising from the December 1969 shootout with the LAPD. It was a case that Olsen writes had “relied . . . heavily on turncoat informants,” and Cochran, more than most attorneys, knew to what lengths prosecutors would go to win their cases. But Cochran certainly did not expect his adversary to blithely deliver exculpatory evidence that could sink the D.A.’s own case against the head of L.A.’s Black Panther Party.

In Olsen’s account, banal events are imputed to conspiratorial motives. When now-deceased liberal California appellate court Justice Bernard Jefferson abruptly withdrew from the panel reviewing Pratt’s 1980 habeas petition, he ruined what many thought was Pratt’s best chance for a favorable ruling. In trying to explain Jefferson’s action, Olsen interviewed Cochran, who called it “an anomaly on top of anomalies. Was somebody making ex parte phone calls? I wouldn’t be surprised. This was a highly political case. Jefferson could have been warned, ‘If you want to be appointed to a higher court, you’ll do so-and-so.’ Stranger things have happened.”

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It is disappointing that Olsen doesn’t question Cochran further or point out that at the time Jefferson was a 71-year-old retiree who was most likely uninterested in a higher appointment. The truth is that Jefferson quit for a much less diabolic reason, which he privately admitted a short time later: When he learned that the pension he would receive was less than he expected, he jettisoned his entire caseload. A fit of personal pique, not the omnipotent hand of new FBI chief William Webster, drove this particular spike into Pratt’s hopes.

Olsen’s attempt to massage the facts to fit the story, along with a number of minor errors give the impression that he has bent the truth to confer sainthood on his chief protagonist. Cochran, not Pratt, is lionized, written into every phase of Pratt’s nearly three-decade ordeal, despite having little, and sometimes nothing, to do with the case for years at a time. Upon losing at trial, he is in his office until midnight “combing the record for appeal points.” Yet Cochran had nothing to do with Pratt’s appeal. (Full disclosure: If Cochran did draw up those points, he never turned them over to my mother, Pratt’s first appellate counsel. She worked alone on the case for three years, taking it as far as the U.S. Supreme Court.)

In “Last Man Standing,” the true antagonists of the case--whose thoughts and words and deeds were rooted in the sometimes idealistic, sometimes ruthless subculture of the Panthers--turn up missing. Had we gotten to know Pratt and Butler, we might have gotten closer to the truth of this strange story. Unfortunately, Olsen brings us no closer to understanding the larger paradox that, in seeking to do good, we often do evil.

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