LOS ANGELES — Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, a former Black Panther Party leader who spent 27 years in prison on a California murder conviction that was later overturned, has died at the age of 63 in his adopted home of Tanzania.
Pratt died early Friday at home in Imbaseni village, 15 miles (24 kilometers) from Arusha, Tanzania, where he had lived for at least half a decade, said a friend in Arusha, former Black Panther Pete O’Neal.
Pratt’s name and his long-fought case with its political backdrop became emblematic of a tumultuous era in American history when the beret-wearing Panthers raised their fists in defiance and carried big guns, striking fear in white America.
The party, founded by Huey Newton in Oakland, Calif., in 1966, was targeted by late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover in a program which sent infiltrators into their gatherings and recruited informants. One of them, Julius Butler, was the key witness against Pratt when he was charged in 1968 with the Santa Monica tennis court shooting of school teacher Caroline Olson.
Pratt, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said he was innocent and maintained there were audiotapes that would prove he had been at a Black Panther meeting in Oakland the day of the killing. His lawyers later said that FBI agents and police hid and possibly destroyed wiretap evidence from the meeting which they had under surveillance.
His conviction in 1972 came during a period of turmoil marked by shootouts between police and Black Panthers, and the trial of activist professor Angela Davis, who was accused of providing guns for Black Panthers in a Marin County, Calif., courthouse shooting. She was acquitted of murder charges in a high-profile trial.
Although the Panthers were associated with violence, they also established free breakfast programs for poor children, health clinics and pest-control services for those who needed them.
It was their high-profile appearances bearing rifles – often licensed and legal – and gun battles with police, which took lives on both sides, that fueled their legend.
In 1967, the FBI launched a counterintelligence program – COINTELPRO – against what it termed “black hate groups” as well as other activists such as the Weathermen and the Socialist Workers Party.
Agents were assigned to “expose, disrupt, misdirect, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalists,” Hoover said in a once-classified memo to field agents.
The program’s most controversial efforts may have been instigating a bloody feud between the Panthers in Los Angeles and a rival black organization known as US.
For years, Pratt supporters including well-known civil rights activists pressed for his release to no avail. But two lawyers, Stuart Hanlon and Johnnie L. Cochran, were relentless in pursuing the case. Each time they were turned down, they filed new motions. In 1997, they won.
Superior Court Judge Everett Dickey granted him a new trial, saying the credibility of prosecution witness Butler – who testified that Pratt had confessed to him – could have been undermined if the jury had known of his relationship with law enforcement. Pratt was freed later that month.
Cochran, best known for representing such clients as O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson, called the day Pratt’s freedom was secured “the happiest day of my life practicing law.”
Prosecutors announced two years later that they would abandon efforts to retry Pratt. But they never acknowledged he was wrongly convicted.
During the remaining 14 years of his life, Pratt divided his time between his home in Louisiana and his adopted home in Tanzania, according to his associates there.
Hanlon, the San Francisco attorney who helped Pratt win his freedom, told The Associated Press that Pratt refused to carry resentment over his treatment by the legal system. .
“He had no anger, he had no bitterness, he had no desire for revenge. He wanted to resume his life and have children,” he said. “He would never look back.”
Pratt worked with the United African Alliance Community Center in Arusha for the last nine years that he lived in the community, which sits near the base of Mount Kilimanjaro, said O’Neal, who founded the organization 20 years ago to empower youth.
“He’s my hero. He was and will continue to be,” O’Neal said. “Geronimo was a symbol of steadfast resistance against all that is considered wrong and improper. His whole life was dedicated to standing in opposition to oppression and exploitation. … He gave all that he had and his life, I believe, struggling, trying to help people lift themselves up.”
O’Neal said that Pratt, who suffered from high blood pressure, may have suffered a heart attack or stroke.
When he learned he would not be tried again in Los Angeles, Pratt said he was relieved that Los Angeles County prosecutors had “come to their senses.”
“But, I am not relieved in that they did not come clean all the way in exposing their complicity with this frame-up, this 27-year trauma,” he added.
He settled a false-imprisonment and civil rights lawsuit against the FBI and city of Los Angeles for $4.5 million in 2000.
Tom Odula reported for The Associated Press from Nairobi, Kenya. AP writers Denise Petski and Jacob Adelman contributed to this story from Los Angeles.
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