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geronimo ji Jaga (preferred capitalization), also known as Geronimo Pratt, a former Black Panther leader, was wrongfully convicted 24 years ago for the murder of a woman in Santa Monica, California. geronimo has always maintained that he was 400 miles away in Oakland, California, at the time of the killing at a Black Panther meeting, and that he was a victim of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO).
Represented by Stuart Hanlon, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Garcia, Julie Drous, Valerie West, David Bernstein and other members of his defense team, geronimo had his conviction and life sentence vacated on May 29, 1997. He was released from prison on June 10, 1997. Judge Everett W. Dickey, Superior Court Judge, held that the prosecution denied Mr. Pratt a fair trial in violation of his constitutional rights. The prosecution
suppressed material evidence relating to the question of guilt and to the credibility of a material witness, in violation of the 1966 United States Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland.
The evidence that the prosecution withheld about prosecution witness Julius Butler could have put the whole case in a different light and the failure to disclose it undermines confidence in the jury verdict, according to Judge Dickey. Butler engaged in informing activities on behalf of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The prosecution was required to provide this information to the defense in order to allow the jury to assess his motives and credibility as a witness. The information would have permitted potentially devastating cross-examination or other impeachment of Butler.
Throughout the first eight months of 1970, Geronimo Pratt spent much of his time in court, defending himself against the charges arising from his Panther activities. On August 17 he was ordered by Huey Newton to “go underground” to build a “revolutionary infrastructure” in the Deep South. For the rest of the year, Pratt traveled through Alabama, Louisiana and Texas, gathering weapons and fortifications for Newton’s newest directive for the party, constructing a “separate nation for blacks.”
By the time he disappeared from Los Angeles, the FBI had implemented its counterintelligence program “designed to challenge the legitimacy of the authority exercised by ELMER GERARD PRATT.” In 1969, the FBI office in Los Angeles was “furnishing on a daily basis information to the. Los Angeles Police Department Intelligence and Criminal Conspiracy Divisions concerning the activities of the black nationalist groups in the anticipation that such information might lead to the arrest of these militants.” By June 1970, measures were being hatched by the FBI “directed toward
neutralizing PRATT as an effective BPP functionary.” The LAPD and the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office had him under surveillance, and they were maintaining regular contact with the federal agents.
On December 4, 1970, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury secretly indicted Elmer Gerard Pratt on one count of murder, two counts of robbery, one count of assault
with intent to commit murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. The prosecution case seemed a to fit perfectly. Although police never put Pratt in a lineup, Kenneth Olsen and Barbara Reed both chose him out of a photo spread of 16 suspects. LAPD firearms expert DeWayne Wolfer matched the .45 shell casings found on the tennis court to a gun the LAPD confiscated during the raid at John Huggins’ house, where Pratt had been arrested. The getaway car was identified as Pratt’s 1967 GTO, with North Carolina plates. And, Julius Butler told police investigators, Pratt had dropped by Butler’s beauty shop the evening of December 18, 1968, saying he and his partner, who was introduced only as “Tyrone,” were going on a “mission”; and the next day, Butler said, Pratt confessed to him that he’d shot some people during a robbery in Santa Monica, admitting that he’d “probably been the chief murderer because Tyrone was a lousy shot,” according to the prosecution’s Statement of Facts.
The case against Pratt, in the end, depended upon the testimony of Julius Carl Butler. When he took the stand toward late afternoon on Monday, June 19, 1972, Butler portrayed himself as a businessman – the owner of Mr. Julio’s, his West Adams salon – who had long since discarded his Panther-era, pistol-whipping machismo. Butler spoke softly as Richard Kalustian had him repeat the story of Pratt’s confession, adding a few new particulars that seemed to seal Pratt’s fate. On the day after the shooting, for instance, Butler testified, Pratt told him that the GTO, which matched the newspaper descriptions of the getaway car, was “hid out.” Although Pratt did not tell Butler what
kind of gun it was, Butler said Pratt usually carried a .45 automatic.
Questions about the integrity of geronimo’s conviction had previously led to investigations by members of the United States Congress. Amnesty International began investigating the case in 1980, published a study in 1988, and has continued to monitor the case. Amnesty International filed an amicus brief in support of geronimo on appeal on July 1, 1998. This is only the third time in the organization’s 30 year history that they have filed an amicus brief on behalf of an individual.
Centurion Ministries works for the release of prison inmates who are innocent of the crimes for which they have been wrongfully convicted. Since 1992, Centurion Ministries has received 3,981 requests for help from inmates. From these requests they have accepted eleven inmates as clients. geronimo is one of those eleven.
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