johnnie cochran jr., best know for representing O.J. Simpson, has another client. His name is Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, a former
munitions expert and "Deputy Minister of Defense" of the Black Panther Party. Pratt
was convicted in 1972 of robbing and murdering a grade school teacher on a
Santa Monica tennis court. Johnnie Cochran has vowed never to rest until Pratt
Who is Geronimo Pratt and why -- aside from the celebrity of the man who now represents him -- should his case matter to anyone now? Because the issues it raises are the same as those in the more famous O.J. Simpson trial: the credibility of the law, the fairness of government and the future of white-black relations in America.
As with Simpson, the actual facts of the case never looked good for
Geronimo Pratt. Witnesses identified him as one of two men who attempted to rob a
nearby store in the area, shortly before schoolteacher Caroline Olsen was murdered (also by two men, according to eyewitnesses). Olsen's husband, who was wounded by the assailants, also identified Pratt at the trial (although he had fingered another man for two years after the attack). Pratt's car, a GTO convertible with North Carolina license plates, was identified by witnesses at both crime scenes. His gun, a .45 automatic, was determined to be the murder weapon.
At trial, Pratt, now 48, offered an alibi: He was attending a Black Panther
Party meeting in Oakland at the time of the deed. Unfortunately for Pratt, no Panthers came forward as witnesses on his behalf. Pratt also claimed -- some might think fancifully -- that his car was used by other Party members, that the gun, though found in his apartment, was not his, and that two Panthers, now conveniently dead, actually committed the murders.
None of this has discouraged the so-called "International Committee to Free Geronimo Pratt." Former Panther leaders Bobby Seale, David Hilliard and other party members have changed their stories about Pratt's non-presence at the meeting in Oakland. And Johnnie Cochran, who was part of the original defense team, has entered a plea for a new trial.
Key to Cochran's strategy is Julius Butler, the Panthers' former "security" chief, who
testified at the trial that Pratt confessed the murder to him. Cochran is playing up the fact that Butler, now a retired lawyer and chairman of the First African Methodist
Episcopal church in South Central Los
Angeles, was an FBI informant who further sullied his credibility by denying the connection. Three of the original jurors have said they would have voted to acquit if this had been revealed at the trial. One juror was also perturbed that Olsen's husband had originally identified another man as the killer.
As he did at the Simpson trial, Cochran will exploit these inconsistencies while pitting the word and integrity of a law enforcement agency against the word of a black man "unjustly" accused of murder.
But how should the rest of us regard it? First of all, we should be
concerned by the fact that the FBI, in such a face-off, seems to be at such a
disadvantage. In the days when the FBI first squared off against convicted felons like Pratt -- he was a member of a criminal street gang who had been previously arrested for possession of a pipe bomb and for assault with a deadly weapon -- there was no question who would be believed.
But times have changed. Rather than have to confront the facts of the case, and the eyewitness testimony, Cochran's legal team is laying out
its arguments about the "repression" of black radicals by
government agencies and the particular targeting of Pratt by the FBI. Cochran's courtroom orations about racist FBI agents, planted evidence and a government frame-up can be clearly visualized.
Is this a healthy situation for law enforcement, let alone for
white-black relations in America? I think not. It is a situation that has been
created by years of unsubstantiated accusations repeated ad nauseam in the
liberal press. Ignored is the fact that the historical record vindicates the FBI
in the matter of the Black Panthers. They were a gang of thugs who brutalized even
their own members. They did torture and kill people (and sometimes got away with it); they were involved in many other serious crimes for which they
were rightfully convicted; and on no occasion has the FBI ever been found to have
framed a Panther (or any other black radical) for a serious felony like
Did Geronimo Pratt rob and kill an innocent schoolteacher in Santa
Monica 25 years ago? Who can say for sure, except Pratt himself?
What I do know is that whether Geronimo Pratt gets a new trial or not, American justice has already been compromised, not by FBI misdeeds, but by years of irresponsible attacks on law enforcement agencies and facile accusations of racism.