Cochran and Geronimo Discuss New Book -------------------------------------------------------------------------- 10-13-00 By Herb Boyd National Editor, TBWT For nearly thirty years Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt, and attorneys Stuart Hanlon and Johnnie Cochran were bound together like a living triangle, each of them dedicated to a singular mission: how to get Geronimo out of prison. Targeted by the FBI as a member of the Black Panther Party and later railroaded to prison on a trumped up charge, Geronimo was finally released three years ago after serving 27 years behind bars--and too many years in solitary confinement. The triumphant threesome were together recently in Manhattan for a roundtable discussion with reporters, where they took turns recalling the events that made Geronimo one of the most well known political prisoners in the world, the long years of frustration of getting him out of prison, and the ultimate settlement of a lawsuit for false imprisonment and violation of civil rights. The City of Los Angeles agreed to pay $2.75 million and the FBI $1.75 million. It was the first public acknowledgment by the FBI of its culpability. "We filed a lawsuit for Mr. Pratt in the Central District of Southern California and the rationale was that he was wrongfully detained, tried and imprisoned," Cochran began. "Mr. Pratt was one of many victims of the FBI's COINTELPRO (Counterintelligence program) set up to neutralize black political activists." Cochran then recalled when he first got involved in the case and meeting Hanlon. "Stuart was in the attorney room at San Quentin where we had come to visit Mr. Pratt," he remembered. "Stuart was still in law school, but he already had a passion that Mr. Pratt was an innocent man. And the more injustice was heaped on us, the more we were resolved not to give up." It was during this time that Cochran, who had won ten murder cases in a row, was appointed to represent Pratt, along with another attorney, Charles Hollopeter. "Geronimo told us repeatedly as we prepared to try his case that 'they' were out to get him. We wanted to know who this 'they' was. Later, we found out it was the FBI and its COINTELPRO operations." "We had no idea the FBI was out to get him," Hanlon interjected. "It wasn't until 1975 that information about COINTELPRO was finally disclosed." And how did Geronimo know he was being targeted? "Well, when you're the victim of something like that you know it isn't local," Geronimo responded. "They had their intelligence and we had ours, and ours told us this was happening. After the police killed Fred Hampton and Mark Clark in Chicago in 1969, we knew it was something more than just local." Even before Geronimo was wrongfully convicted after being misidentified and charged with the murder of a woman in Santa Monica, there was a similar incident in which he was accused of committing a robbery in Alabama, "and he wasn't even in the state at the time," Hanlon explained. Cochran then took time to relate the background on Geronimo's case and why his alibi failed to convince the jury. "First of all, you have to understand there was a rupture in the Panther Party between those followers of a faction led by Eldridge Cleaver and those devoted to Huey Newton," he said. "All of the leaders of the Panthers knew Geronimo was in Oakland and could not have been in Santa Monica when Cathleen Olsen was killed. But because of the rupture, we could only get Kathleen Cleaver to appear at the trial, and we had to pay for her trip from Algiers where Cleaver's group was based at that time. "Later, after the COINTELPRO disclosures, they all wanted to come forward," Cochran continued, "but that didn't help us in 1972." "There were existing FBI logs that showed conclusively, since they had me under surveillance, that I was in Oakland at the time of the murder," Pratt added. Cochran said they became aware of the missing FBI logs from a retired FBI agent who admitted that he had seen them. Moreover, the husband of the murdered woman had positively identified two other men as his wife's killers, but the defense never received these accounts. During the appeal process, Cochran was informed that there were informants in the defense environment, which compromised the appeal. This was an odd twist since the defense had incontrovertible evidence that Julio Butler, the prosecution's star witness, was an FBI informant. "I asked him several times while he was on the stand if he was a paid informant for the FBI," Cochran said, "he said he wasn't." In fact, Butler had informed more than 33 times for the FBI, and later, in 1996, an investigator for the DA's office, found cards with Butler's name on it noting that he was a paid informant. "It was not so much that Butler was an FBI informant, he was also the main witness against Geronimo," Hanlon said. Butler told the court that Geronimo had told him he had committed the murder. Many of the jurors admitted after the trial was over that they would have not convicted Pratt if other leaders of the Panthers had testified in his behalf. Two of the jurors also explained that they were swayed by the refutation of a Polaroid photo offered by the defense showing Pratt with facial hair, that contradicted witnesses who said the murderer was clean-shaven. The prosecution presented an expert witness who told the court the film package was dated much later than the date offered by the defense. "It was compelling because it was the last thing the jurors heard," Cochran said. The attempt to rebut the expert witness went for naught, though the defense was prepared to show how the batch of Polaroid film was misdated. "In short," Cochran concluded, "the fix was in. There was no way Geronimo was going to be acquitted." "We had a ball and chain around our legs in a foot race when our opponents didn't have one, and we still almost won the case," Pratt observed. >From that date in 1972, it would take Cochran, Hanlon and other defense attorneys 28 years to see Pratt walk to freedom. "We were determined, no matter how long it took, to get Geronimo released from prison," Cochran said. "That was a promise Stuart and I made way back then, and here we are." This story is told in a riveting account by reporter/author Jack Olsen in Last Man Standing-The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt (Doubleday, 2000), which we will review later this month.
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