In 1972 Pratt was convicted of the Olsen murder. His counsel in the trial was a young Johnnie Cochran, who would eventually become widely known for his defense of O.J. Simpson in the latter's 1995 murder trial. Cochran has written that it was the Pratt case that radicalized him and convinced him that the American justice system was systemically biased against African Americans. Cochran also believed that his failure to "play the race card" (i.e., depict his client as the victim of a racist justice system) caused him to lose the case, a mistake he vowed never to make again.
Pratt's case soon became a cause celebre
for leftists around the world. A coalition of Democratic
political figures (including Maxine Waters
, Willie Brown, and Pete McCloskey, among others) and Hollywood activists (such as Ed Asner
and Mike Farrell
) publicly rushed to his defense. In a similar spirit, a number of notable organizations sought to free Pratt, or failing that, to at least gain him a new trial. Among these groups were the California Democratic Council, the American Civil Liberties Union
, Amnesty International
, Refuse & Resist!
, and the Maoist Internationalist Movement (which cited Pratt's case as "proof" that the American justice system was fundamentally racist).
In making his case for a re-trial, Johnnie Cochran depicted the FBI as a band of racists intent on convicting a black radical at any cost. He asserted that the prosecution was attempting to frame Pratt as political retribution because he was a Black Panther.
In 1997 Judge Everett Dickey ordered the State of California to give Pratt a new trial, despite the fact that most of the material witnesses were now dead, and that the intervening 25 years had blurred witnesses' memories. The salient reason
cited by Judge Dickey for overturning the original 1972 verdict was that the prosecution had concealed the "fact" that "[Julius Butler] had been, for at least three years before Pratt’s trial, providing information about the Black Panther Party and individuals associated with it to law enforcement agencies on a confidential basis."
But Dickey's premise was false
. Butler had absolutely no contact with the FBI or law enforcement prior to his delivery of a sealed letter
to Sergeant Duwayne Rice of the Los Angeles Police Department on August 10, 1969, eight months after the Olsen murder and less than two years before the trial. The letter's identification of Geronimo Pratt as Olsen's killer was available to the jury and was a centerpiece of the court proceeding, a fact that was not even addressed in Dickey's opinion. Moreover, Butler's testimony at the original trial was entirely consistent with the information contained in the incriminating letter and with his behavior throughout the case.
In Pratt’s new trial, Bobby Seale and Elaine Brown changed their testimony entirely, this time in Pratt’s favor. In June 1997, Pratt was released
from prison on $25,000 bail. He was hailed by the left as an American Nelson Mandela
and was offered numerous book and movie deals.
Reflecting in September 1997 on Pratt's turn of fortune, social commentator David Horowitz wrote
: “Why hasn't justice prevailed in this matter? Why is a clearly guilty individual free? The answer lies in the climate of the times, in which the testimony of officers of the law have become more readily impeachable than the testimony of criminals. As in the O.J. Simpson trial, the appeals process in the Pratt case has been turned by Johnnie Cochran into a class action libel against the FBI, the police, the prosecution and its chief witness. And as in the Simpson case, Johnnie Cochran's fictional melodrama has won out over the politically incorrect truth.”
In September 1999 the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU-SC) reported
that Pratt would file a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Los Angeles, five retired LAPD officers, seven former FBI agents, and Julius Butler. Pratt claimed
that those defendants had conspired to convict him. "Geronimo Pratt's fight for justice will continue," said ACLU-SC Chief Counsel Michael Small. In addition to the ACLU, Pratt was also represented by Johnnie Cochran and Stuart Hanlon, a San Francisco civil rights lawyer who had been part of Pratt's legal team for more than 25 years.
In April 2000, a federal judge approved a $4.5 million settlement
of the Pratt lawsuit