Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, a Black Panther leader wrongfully accused of murdering a schoolteacher on a Santa Monica tennis court in December 1968, died Friday. He was 63.
Pratt was convicted for killing Caroline Olsen, a 27-year-old Culver City schoolteacher, in 1972. But after spending 27 years in prison—including eight in solitary confinement—the conviction was overturned.
Pratt died in his home, located in a village near Arusha, Tanzania. It is suspected that the cause of death was a heart attack or stroke, as he had recently been taken to a hospital for high blood pressure.
The murder occurred at the Lincoln Park tennis courts at Wilshire Blvd. and Seventh St., where 's is now. Olsen had been with her husband, Kenneth Olsen, and was fatally shot by two robbers, it was alleged.
Pratt maintained his innocence, saying he had been in Oakland for Black Panther Party meetings when the murder took place. He accused the FBI and police of hiding and possibly destroying wiretap evidence that he said would have proven his innocence.
"He had no anger, he had no bitterness, he had no desire for revenge [over the wrongful conviction]. He wanted to resume his life and have children," lawyer Stuart Hanlon, who helped overturn Pratt's conviction told The Associated Press. "He would never look back."
In 2000, Pratt settled a $4.5 million false imprisonment and civil rights suit against the city of Los Angeles and the FBI.
Pratt was granted a new trial in June 1997 after it was revealed that prosecution witness Julius Butler hid critical information about himself, including that he was an ex-felon and a police informant. Butler had testified that Pratt told him he was responsible for the murder.
Later that month, Pratt was released from prison. Two years later, prosecutors said they would not retry him.
Pratt's lawyers included Johnnie Cochran, who also represented O.J. Simpson and Michael Jackson. The lawyers argued that Pratt's arrest was due to the J. Edgar Hoover-led FBI's campaign against the Black Panthers and other leftist groups.
Cochran said the day of Pratt's release from prison was "the happiest day of my life practicing law."
Pratt relocated to Tanzania at least a half-decade ago. For the past nine years, he worked with the United African Alliance Community Center, a youth-empowerment organization.
"Geronimo was a symbol of steadfast resistance against all that is considered wrong and improper," Pete O'Neal—an ex-Black Panther, the UAACC founder and a friend of Pratt—told AP. "His whole life was dedicated to standing in opposition to oppression and exploitation. ... He gave all that he had and his life, I believe, struggling, trying to help people lift themselves up."
Sources: The Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, BlackVoiceNews.net