Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt
By Jack Olsen
Published by Doubleday
500 pages; $27.50
Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt is a multifaceted story with many lessons in it--some quite obvious, others less so. Pratt served over 26 years for a 1968 murder committed in Santa Monica while he was under FBI surveillance in Oakland, 350 miles away. The FBI not only knew Pratt was innocent, it actively participated in framing him. Pratt was targeted because he was a leader in the Black Panther Party, but the perverted criminal justice system that kept him locked up for more than a quarter century is precisely the same system that produced the Ramparts scandal, the Rodney King beating and countless other brutal violations of fundamental human rights. The problems revealed aren't simply those of "a few bad apples," they encompass the entire criminal justice system: police, prosecutors, judges, prison officials, and politicians. The depth of the problems clearly shows that nothing currently contemplated will come close to solving them.
But Last Man Standing is not just a story about the injustice of the system, it's also the story of a man who eventually triumphed over that injustice. Author Jack Olsen takes us back to Pratt's childhood in Morgan City, Louisiana, a town of 15,000 where blacks and whites lived civilly with one another thanks to the protection of a group of black veterans from World War II and Korea known simply as "the elders." The elders descended from a self-defense organization called the Legionnaires founded by Marcus Garvey in the 1920s. (The Louisiana chapter went by the name Deacons For Defense and Justice.) Following a Klan ambush that killed one of the first black deputies in Louisiana, the elders summoned Pratt and instructed him to join the army, so that he could join their ranks in defending his community. He ended up doing two tours in Vietnam, and getting a first-hand education in the nature of imperialism. When he got out, the elders sent him to Los Angeles to help train the fledgling Black Panthers in community self-defense.
This backstory of how Pratt became a Panther leader is atypical, but historically revealing of a tradition that most Panthers and their supporters knew only by reputation, and that most Americans today remain totally ignorant of. Yet the Panther's full name--the Black Panther Party for Self Defense--clearly claimed a place squarely within that tradition; it's impossible to have any understanding of the Panthers without taking this tradition into account. It's also impossible to understand the Panthers without realizing how tenuous this connection really was. Pratt's military experience was so valuable and so rare within the Panthers that eventually he was sent across the country training (and where necessary establishing) local Panther chapters. But Pratt himself had never served an apprenticeship in the Deacons for Defense and Justice. Thus, the Panthers were part of tradition they had only the most tenuous links to--primarily those of legend and imagination.
The weakness of their foundation was one of the crucial factors making them vulnerable to FBI's vicious COINTELPRO program, which was directed to infiltrate, sabotage and destroy the Panthers in clear violation of the First Amendment and a host of criminal statutes beginning with murder. Four days after the Chicago PD murdered Fred Hampton, 39 LAPD and FBI agents clearly had murder on their minds when they attacked the LA Panthers' headquarters in a predawn raid on December 8, 1969. The furious assault--with thousands of rounds of police gunfire, tear gas canisters fired from grenade launchers and dynamite dropped from helicopters--eventually involved over 200 officers but failed to kill a single Panther thanks to fortifications installed under Pratt's instruction. Twelve Panthers surrendered after a 5-hour standoff. Pratt was arrested in his sleep over a mile away, and charged with conspiracy.
This arrest began a period of continuous harassment and phony charges that became so routine, that Pratt at first took no special notice of the case charging him with the 1968 murder of Caroline Olsen--it was just another bogus charge intended to harass him, tie up his energy, keep him on his heels. But this one bogus charge was different--it was the one that the FBI, the LAPD and the DA decided on to put him away once and for all. To pull it off they played very dirty, but the key to their success in convicting Pratt was the larger success in splitting the Black Panther Party into factions by using informers, infilitrators, provocateurs, anonymous disinformation and other means to capitalize on every internal disagreement or misunderstanding. As one result, by the time of Pratt's trial he'd been expelled from the Party and everyone in the Party had been ordered not to cooperate in his defense. None of the high-ranking Panthers who could place him in Oakland on the day of the shooting testified--Kathleen Cleaver, herself exiled, did testify for Pratt, but couldn't say for certain that she'd seen him that precise day.
In the run-up to the trial, the author takes us part way behind the scenes, so we can see the routine level of official skullduggery in the framing of Pratt. The initial eye witness identifications--including police sketches approved by the witnesses--didn't match him. At one point the police fixed on another suspect, and the victim's ex-husband even made a positive ID before the police discovered that their suspect had been incarcerated when the murder took place. A police informant, Julio Butler, who'd been expelled from the Panthers by Pratt, told a wildly improbable tale that had one thing going for it: it fingered Pratt for the murder. Butler fingered another Panther, Tyrone Hutchinson, as Pratt's accomplice, but when he was pulled in for questioning, Hutchinson identified two young addicts as the murderers, and named 3 other men who'd heard the addicts brag of their crime. The LAPD sergeant who interrogated him "warned him to 'keep your mouth shut about this if you know what's good for you.'" Hutchinson's name dropped from the case, the leads he offered were never investigated, but the rest of Butler's story was still treated like gospel.
Most of these backdoor shenanigans never saw the light of day in open court, despite the prosecution's legal responsibility to turn over such information. Everything the prosecution couldn't bury completely was buried as much as possible under an avalanche of courtroom lies. The mistaken identification did make it into court, but both the witness and the officer involved committed perjury, claiming it wasn't a positive ID. Both eyewitnesses disavowed their initial descriptions, blamed police sketch artists for doing a poor job, and pretended that they hadn't been satisfied with the sketches, despite having okayed them. Butler's role as an informant was simply denied.
The similarities to the Ramparts scandal are striking--blatantly falsified testimony that wasn't even superficially plausible was used to convict an innocent man. In Pratt's case as in Ramparts both judges and DAs had to know that their witnesses were lying. As officers of the court, they had a legal and ethical obligation to report this, and not to allow this evidence to be used to convict. In both cases, the entire criminal justice system blinded itself in the course of going after a designated, demonized enemy--in Pratt's case it was the Black Panthers, in the Ramparts scandal it was the gangs. In both cases, the criminal justice system turned itself into a force of lawlessness.
There is much, much more than this in Last Man Standing. There's the story of Pratt's first eight years in prison spent entirely in the hole, the story of repeated harassment and attempts to get him killed by prison officials, the story of his emergence as a prison leader with an inner strength that commanded respect much the same way that Nelson Mandella did, the story of the repeated perversion of his prison review and parole hearing process, and the career destruction of the one prison psychologists who refused to break the rules to get at Pratt. Finally, there's the story of the seemingly endless struggle to overturn a conviction based on a towering edifice of lies.
This last story cannot be overstressed. For decades now conservatives have been railing against the appeals process for supposedly giving convicted (therefore guilty) prisoners endless opportunities to overturn convictions on "mere technicalities." Pratt's case is a textbook refutation of such nonsense. Again and again Pratt's lawyers went into court with evidence and arguments that met every legal requirement to overturn his conviction, or at the very least to justify a full evidentiary hearing. But the deck was stacked unfailingly against them. Every time a judge made a legally insupportable ruling, that ruling was protected from further scrutiny by judges following routine procedure. It was strikingly similar to the kind of "justice" blacks had received for generations in the South. Only the appearance of procedural fairness was more elaborate.
Ironically, what finally got Pratt released was an attempt to sink him that backfired. For decades Pratt had been forced to fight the entire LA County legal establishment. The whole cozy system that turned a blind eye toward the Ramparts scandal turned a blind eye toward all the rotten lies and coverups involved in Pratt's case as well. As Pratt sought to prove that Butler was an informant, that the prosecutions key witness had committed perjury, his case was suddenly transferred to Orange County--seemingly out of the frying pan, into the fire.
But only seemingly.
Orange County is significantly more conservative than Los Angeles County. But Pratt's case goes to show that overt ideology is far less important than institutional self-protection. Once his case was removed from the poisonously prejudiced L.A. environment, where everyone had a stake in seeing the system protected, the overflowing contradictions in the case against Pratt were impossible to ignore. The judge who ordered Pratt's release was a conservative Republican appointee. LA's democratic DA, Gil Garcetti, tried to appeal, but was turned down 3-0.
There are many morals to be drawn from Pratt's story, and there's much more to Pratt's story than I've described here. But for those who continue to fight for an end to the unjust criminal justice system here in Los Angeles, one moral is particularly clear: the entire system is rotten to the core. It's not just a few bad apples in the LAPD, it's the entire mindset of the LAPD. And it's not just the LAPD, but the mindset of the DAs office as well. And it's not just mindset of the DA, it's the mindset of the judges, from the trial level on up the ladder. Every step of the way there are courageous individual exceptions--a few non-rotten apples. But the system itself is rotten to the core. It took nearly 27 years to exonerate Geronimo Pratt, and it only happened by a fluke. Justice, when it finally came, was an accident, showing up by surprise when least expected.
Of course there's more to the problem than just a rotten criminal justice system. There are also rotten laws produced by an equally rotten political system. Tobacco, which kills 400,000 people a year is a legal, unregulated product whose manufacturers are amongst the most powerful corporations in the world. Marijuana and cocaine, utterly harmless by comparison, have no such protection--whole prisons have been built and filled with the unprotected sellers of these relatively innocuous drugs. But part of the way to undo the madness of these laws is to expose the madness of the system that enforces them. Last Man Standing does exactly that.