When an Orange County judge decided on Thursday to order a new trial for Elmer Pratt, a former Black Panther convicted 25 years ago of murder, he left the Los Angeles County district attorney grappling with ugly legal and political issues that trace all the way back to the turbulent era of Vietnam, Watergate and black power.
It was a time of extremes and excesses, in which angry citizens and an equally angry federal government both overstepped legal and political bounds repeatedly, and such transgressions will loom large as the chief Los Angeles prosecutor, Gil Garcetti, goes about deciding his next step.
Garcetti can appeal Thursday’s decision or go directly to a second trial or ask the judge to drop the case and free Pratt immediately. But whatever his decision, he can hardly make it without weighing Pratt’s alleged violent excess - which he has consistently denied - against the judge’s finding on Thursday that the prosecution in the first trial went to the extreme of concealing that its best witness was a convicted felon who had been recruited as a police informant and infiltrator.
Pratt, now 49 and known as Geronimo, was convicted of killing a Santa Monica teacher in a 1968 robbery and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. At the time of the robbery, he was a leader in the Los Angeles branch of the Black Panther Party.
The Panthers were one of the groups that promoted black empowerment in the late 1960s and early 1970s, sometimes through violent means. Federal and local law agencies sought to infiltrate and disrupt the organization, much as they tried to infiltrate and disrupt other dissident groups.
In the case of the Los Angeles Panthers, according to Thursday’s court finding, the police recruited from among the chapter’s ranks an informant named Julius Butler, a sometime rival of Pratt in Panther power struggles. At Pratt’s trial, Butler testified that Pratt had confessed to him that during a robbery in which he got $18, he had killed a Santa Monica teacher, Caroline Olsen.
It was never disclosed at the trial that Butler was a police informant with a record of four felony pleas, including one for assault. The Orange County judge, Everett Dickey, held on Thursday that “failure to timely disclose undermines confidence in a verdict.”
Garcetti refused to comment Friday on the ruling by Dickey, who was given the case after Los Angeles court officials decided a challenge to the fairness of the Los Angeles court system should not be decided within the system itself.
Sandi Gibbons, Garcetti’s spokeswoman, said late Friday that he already was at work on what course to take next.
Should Garcetti decide to appeal Dickey’s finding, rather than set a second trial or seek immediate dismissal of the case, a resolution of the case could be many months away.
Prison authorities said that Pratt, held in recent years in a state institution east of Sacramento, would be transferred to a Los Angeles jail over the weekend to await the next legal turn. One of Pratt’s lawyers, Stuart Hanlon of San Francisco, said an effort would be made to win bail for Pratt.
“He deserves that at a minimum, and after that we’re going to push Gil Garcetti to drop this entire case,” Hanlon said. “The current DA’s office isn’t tied to this case. In fact, Garcetti’s people were the ones who first told us about the secret informant.”
From the time of his arrest, Pratt denied any guilt and maintained he was 400 miles away, in the San Francisco area, at the time of the Santa Monica slaying.
After his conviction, his lawyers, joined by a number of civil rights groups and even some former jurors at one point, continued to argue his innocence, saying he was the victim of an era when the government conducted vendettas against the Black Panthers and other protest groups and controversial individuals.
Four of Pratt’s appeals made it to court. But each was turned down. In the meantime, he also failed, 16 times, to win parole.
Then came the tip from Garcetti’s office that a study of the case had uncovered that the key prosecution witness had not been correctly identified for the judge and jury.
Besides Hanlon, Pratt’s legal team includes Johnnie Cochran Jr., one of the Los Angeles lawyers who helped defend O.J. Simpson.
Cochran, who has represented Pratt since his original trial, called Dickey’s decision “one of the greatest moments of my life and the greatest moment of my legal career. It represents a 25-year fight for justice, which now is within reach for a man who has suffered for more than half his life for a crime he did not commit.”
Hanlon said Pratt expressed great satisfaction upon learning of the judge’s decision.
“He was all joy,” Hanlon said. “He didn’t just want to hear about the decision. He wanted the words read to him, all of them.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT? The Los Angeles prosecutor can appeal Thursday’s decision or go directly to a second trial or ask the judge to drop the case and free Elmer Pratt immediately.