Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, September 13, 1947 – June 2, 2011, also known as Geronimo ji-Jaga, was a high ranking member of the Black Panther Party. The Federal Bureau of Investigation targeted him in a COINTELPRO operation, which aimed to "neutralize Pratt as an effective BPP functionary. Pratt was tried and convicted of the kidnap and murder of Caroline Olsen in 1972, and spent 27 years in prison, eight of which were in solitary confinement. Pratt was freed in 1997 when his conviction was vacated. He was working as a human rights activist up until the time of his death. Pratt was also the godfather of the late rapper Tupac Shakur . He died of a heart attack in his adopted country, Tanzania, on June 2, 2011.
In 1968, Caroline Olsen, a 27-year-old elementary school teacher, was murdered by gunshot during a robbery on a Santa Monica tennis court. Olsen's husband, Kenneth, who was also shot but survived, initially identified another man as the killer. Julius Butler, a Black Panther and police informant, fingered Geronimo Pratt as the killer. In 1970 Pratt was arrested and charged with murder and kidnapping.
His attorney, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., assured his client that the charges would be dropped, given that Pratt had been 350 miles away on the night of the murder and could prove it. But, according to and alleged by author Jack Olsen, they were met with setbacks, from lying prosecution witnesses trooped to exculpatory evidence disappearing at police stations and the L.A. District Attorney’s office. Later it was revealed, according to Olsen, that FBI "moles" had infiltrated defense sessions and monitored Cochran’s phone calls.
Pratt always maintained his innocence. During his incarceration he studied law and steadfastly built a defense. Pratt was represented by attorneys Stuart Hanlon and Johnnie Cochran in his original trial. Together with William Paparian, Hanlon contributed much to the appeals that later led to Pratt's conviction being vacated.
Murder conviction vacated
Pratt's conviction was vacated on June 10, 1997, on the grounds that the prosecution had concealed evidence that might have exonerated the defendant. In particular, the government had not disclosed that a key witness against Pratt, Julius Butler, was an informant for both the FBI and the LAPD. An appeals court ruled this fact to be "'favorable' to the defendant, 'suppressed' by a law enforcement agency, and 'material' to the jury's decision to convict.
Pratt eventually received $4.5 million as settlement for false imprisonment. A federal judge approved the settlement of the civil suit: The city of L.A. paid $2.75 million of the settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice paying the $1.75 million remainder.
Pratt continued to work on behalf of men and women believed to be wrongfully incarcerated until his death, including participation in rallies in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, whom he had met when both were active as Black Panthers. Geronimo was living in Tanzania at the time of his death.
Pratt was raised in Morgan City, Louisiana. He served two combat tours in the Vietnam War and came to Los Angeles,
After he served his two tours, Pratt used the GI Bill to go to UCLA. When Pratt joined the Black Panthers, his years in the army proved useful. He rose to be Minister of Defense of the local organization, after two of its officers were killed. Pratt's wife Saundra was killed in 1971 while 8 months pregnant and left in a ditch. The murder was blamed on a Party schism between supporters of Huey Newton and supporters of Eldridge Cleaver with Pratt and his wife belonging to the Cleaver faction.
By January 1970, the Los Angeles FBI office had sought permission from headquarters for a counterintelligence effort "designed to challenge the legitimacy of the authority exercised" by Pratt in the local Panthers. Another FBI memo dated five months later noted that the Bureau was constantly considering counterintelligence measures designed to neutralize Pratt "as an effective (Panther) functionary.