Black Panther freed after 27 years in jail

Issue 

By Barry Sheppard

One of America's longest-standing political prisoners was finally released on US$25,000 bail on June 10, when a judge found that his conviction on a murder charge was seriously tainted.

The frame-up of Geronimo Pratt was part of a broad campaign in the late 1960s by the FBI and local police agencies across the country to smash the Black Panther Party, a campaign that included the murder of Panther members among many other unsavoury deeds.

Pratt's drama began when he was accused of the 1968 murder of a schoolteacher and the critical wounding of her husband on a tennis court in the Los Angeles area.

In 1972, Pratt was convicted of the murder and sentenced to 25 years to life. The key witness in the trial was Julius Butler, a member of the Black Panthers. Butler testified that Pratt had confessed the murder to him. This was virtually all the evidence against Pratt.

What the prosecution failed to tell the court and jury was that Butler was a convicted criminal recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the Black Panthers. In deciding to overturn Pratt's conviction, the judge ruled that this fact could very well have led the trial jury to a different conclusion.

Pratt always maintained his innocence, and said he was 400 miles (650 kilometres) away, attending a Black Panther meeting in the San Francisco Bay area, when the murder occurred. The FBI was aware he was in the area, because it had him under surveillance — an assertion supported by retired FBI agent M. Wesley Swearingen. But the FBI didn't come forward with this at the trial.

These facts have been known for some time. But over the years, four other judges had rejected Pratt's appeals, even though many civil liberties groups had sided with him, as had, in time, some of the jurors who originally found him guilty.

Pratt was sentenced when he was 22. He spent the first eight years of his term in solitary confinement.

When he was released into a crowd of supporters, someone began to chant, "Free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty he's free at last!" — a paraphrase of part of Martin Luther King's famous "I have a dream" speech.

Pratt spoke to the crowd, and accused the Nixon administration of "trying to kill us all". He said that the country's jails are packed with the unjustly accused.

"You have political prisoners on top of political prisoners", he said. "I'm only one of a great many that should be released."

David Hillary, the founder of the Black Panthers, and now head of a foundation named after former Panther leader Huey Newton, called Pratt's release "a victory for black America and a good day for America".

"He was framed by the FBI, no doubt about it, because we were a party of young blacks", Hillary said.

In spite of the facts as they are now known, Los Angeles prosecutors plan to appeal the overturning of Pratt's conviction. While the appeal wends its way through the courts, Pratt will be on $25,000 bail.

If the prosecutors' appeal fails, then they will have to decide whether or not to retry Pratt. Given what's known about the case now, and what is now known about the FBI's dirty tricks against the Black Panthers and many other left political parties and movements in the 1960s, it's unlikely there would be another trial.

Asked about the possibility of a new trial, Pratt's lawyer, Johnny Cochran, chuckled. "That's all over, it's not even an issue", he said. "Nobody is taking that seriously."

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