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Former Black Panther Party Leader Elmer ‘Geronimo’ Pratt dies at 63

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Former Black Panther Party leader Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt, whose 1972 murder conviction was overturned after he spent 27 years in prison for a crime he said he did not commit, has died Thursday, June 7th in Tanzania. He was 63.

Stuart Hanlon, Pratt’s longtime San Francisco attorney, who helped overturn Pratt’s murder conviction, said he did not know the exact cause of death. Pratt, whose case became for many a symbol of racial injustices during the turbulent 1960s, died Thursday at his home in a small village in Tanzania, said his sister Virginia.

Pratt’s case became a cause celebre for a range of supporters, including elected officials, activists, Amnesty International, clergy and celebrities who believed he was framed by Los Angeles police and the FBI because he was African-American and a member of the radical Black Panthers. Pratt maintained that the FBI knew he was innocent because the agency had him under surveillance in Oakland when the slaying was committed in Santa Monica.

“Geronimo was a powerful leader,” Hanlon said. “For that reason he was targeted. He was very charismatic. His legacy is that he never gave up. He never got despondent or angry.”

Pratt was convicted for the 1968 murder of Caroline Olsen on a Santa Monica tennis court. He spent 27 years in prison before the conviction was overturned in 1997 after a judge ruled that prosecutors had concealed evidence.

The victim’s husband, wounded during the robbery attempt, originally identified another man as the killer. But the jury was not informed of that, the judge said.

Famed attorney Johnnie Cochran also helped in the legal battle to get Pratt released from prison. Pratt spoke at Cochran’s funeral in 2005.
After his release, Pratt told CNN that he held no bitterness about the many years he spent behind bars.

“I don’t think bitterness has a place. I’m more understanding,” Pratt said in a 1999 interview. “Understanding doesn’t leave any room for bitterness or anger.”

Of the 27 years he spent in prison, Pratt said eight was in solitary confinement. He said his spirituality and love of music helped him through that period.
“My mantra was the blues. It would go through my head when I was going through my meditations,” Pratt said.

For more than two decades, Pratt’s legal team — led by Hanlon and Los Angeles attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. — struggled to win Pratt’s freedom. Cochran, who was a key member of O.J. Simpson’s “Dream Team” said Pratt’s case was the most important of his career.

A federal judge later approved a $4.5 million settlement in Pratt’s false-imprisonment and civil rights lawsuit.

Pratt, who also went by Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, was born on Sept. 13, 1947, in Morgan City, La., a small town about two hours from New Orleans. The youngest of seven children, Pratt was raised as a Roman Catholic by his mother and his father, who operated a small scrap-metal business.

Growing up in the segregated South amid a tight-knit black community had a profound effect on Pratt, he later told interviewers.

“The situation was pretty racist, on the one hand,” he said in an interview with Race and Class magazine. “On the other, it was full of integrity and dignity and the pride of being part of this community … the values, the work ethic, very respectful to everyone.”

Pratt volunteered to join the Army and served with the 82nd Airborne in Vietnam, where he was awarded two Bronze Stars, a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. After he was discharged, Pratt moved to Los Angeles in 1968 and enrolled at UCLA. While attending classes, he met Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter, a Louisiana native and an early member of the Black Panther Party who recruited him to the cause and gave him the “Geronimo” nickname.

After he was released from Mule Creek State Prison in Amador County, Pratt held no animosity toward authorities who had imprisoned him, Hanlon said. “He was at peace with himself,” the attorney said.

Pratt is survived by a daughter, three sons, two sisters and two brothers.

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1 comment

News Tracker June 17, 2016 at 12:22 PM

If he was 63 when he passed, he was born in 1953, so he was a targeted leader and falsely accused of murder at the young age of 15 years old.


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