Former LA Black Panther leader Pratt dies at 63

June 3, 2011 - 12:29 AM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, a former Black Panther Party leader who spent 27 years in prison on a murder conviction that was later overturned, has died. He was 63.

Pratt died at his home in a small village in Tanzania, where he had lived for at least half a decade, lawyer Stuart Hanlon, who helped Pratt win his freedom, told The Associated Press from San Francisco on Thursday.

Hanlon said he learned of Pratt's death through the former activist's family members. He did not know what caused Pratt's death, but said he had suffered from high blood pressure.

Hanlon said Pratt refused to carry any resentment about his treatment by the legal system.

"He had no anger, he had no bitterness, he had no desire for revenge. He wanted to resume his life and have children," he said. "He would never look back."

Pratt was convicted in 1972 of being one of two men who robbed and fatally shot schoolteacher Caroline Olsen on a Santa Monica tennis court in December 1968. No one else was arrested.

Pratt claimed he was in Oakland for Black Panther meetings the day of the murder, and that FBI agents and police hid and possibly destroyed wiretap evidence that would prove it.

His lawyers, who included high-profile defense attorney Johnnie Cochran, blamed his arrest on a politically charged campaign by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI against the Black Panthers and other perceived enemies of the U.S. government.

Pratt's belated reversal of fortune came with the disclosure that a key prosecution witness hid the fact he was an ex-felon and a police informant.

Superior Court Judge Everett Dickey granted him a new trial in June 1997, saying the credibility of prosecution witness Julius Butler — who testified that Pratt had confessed to him — could have been undermined if the jury had known of his relationship with law enforcement.

Pratt was freed in June 1997 and Los Angeles prosecutors announced two years later that they would not seek to retry him.

Cochran, best known representing such high-profile clients as O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson, called the day Pratt's freedom was secured "the happiest day of my life practicing law."

He has settled a false imprisonment and civil rights lawsuit against the FBI and city of Los Angeles for $4.5 million in 200