June 4, 2011 | Frank Stoltze | KPCC Southern California Public Radio
Geronimo Pratt, the former head of the Black Panthers’ Southland chapter, died Thursday. He was 63. Most people who knew Pratt’s name recall that he was the target of an FBI program during the early 1970s that landed him in prison for more than a quarter-century for a crime he did not commit.
The program was dubbed COINTELPRO — an acronym for an FBI counterintelligence program that secretly monitored African-Americans, Latinos, socialists and any group with a remotely left-of-center political ideology in the 1960s and 1970s.
The program also often sought to “neutralize” those groups, in the words of former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who also said he sometimes coordinated his activities with local law enforcement agencies like the LAPD and L.A. County District Attorneys office.
In 1972, the agency used a secret informant to help convict Pratt of a Santa Monica murder he did not commit. The case attracted national attention at the time, and later it became a cause celebre for progressives and human rights groups like Amnesty International.
CBS News revisited the case years later as evidence of law enforcement misconduct surfaced.
“For more than a quarter-century, Black Panther member Geronimo Pratt said he was the victim of an FBI setup. He was convicted of a murder he insisted he did not commit,” anchor Dan Rather told a national audience. “A year ago, CBS News turned up evidence that the key prosecution witness was a police informant, something the jury was never told.”
The jury was also never told that the husband of the woman who was murdered initially identified someone else as her killer.
In 1997, a conservative Orange County judge appointed by President Reagan overturned Pratt’s conviction and ordered him freed from prison.
UCLA’s Center for African-American Studies Director Darnell Hunt said the case is important.
“I think Geronimo Pratt is a figure who will be forever thought of in the context of Black Nationalist movements and attempts by the state to squash those movements,” he said.
Pratt, who was born Elmer Pratt, was a Louisiana native and decorated Vietnam War veteran who served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne unit.
But when he returned home and entered UCLA, persistent racial injustices prompted him to join the Black Panther Party. Its platform included militant rhetoric and neighborhood service, including free meals to schoolchildren.
When Los Angeles prosecutors charged him with murder, a court-appointed defense attorney named Johnnie Cochran represented Pratt. For the man who would later represent O.J. Simpson, Pratt’s case represented a key moment.
“That experience made me a much better lawyer. It made me question the official view,” Cochran, who died in 2005, had said. “This was the most important case of my life and the day that Geronimo Pratt was released from custody was the most important and satisfying victory of my whole life.”
After he lived for a few years in the United States, Pratt, his wife and child moved to Tanzania, where he worked with young people. In a radio interview with Tavis Smiley, he spoke about his imprisonment.
“I was not kept in prison because of the murder. They knew I did not do the murder,” he said.”I was kept in prison because of my convictions and dedication to the liberation of our people.”
UCLA history Professor Mark Sawyer met Pratt on several occasions after his release. He recalls a man who remained philosophical about his imprisonment.
Sawyer regards his death as a reminder of what can happen when government doesn’t keep close reigns on its law enforcement agencies; he sees parallels today with concerns about terrorism and the Patriot Act.
“Geronimo Pratt should stand as a warning for us about police organizations that were operating as essentially secret police outside of public scrutiny,” he said.