Former Black Panther member Geronimo Pratt died June 2 at his home in Tanzania at age 63. He was widely known for spending 27 years in prison on a wrongful conviction of murder.
Pratt, in recent years known as Geronimo Ji Jiga, was a client of the late Johnny Cochran and was released in 1997 following a long legal battle that uncovered a police informant within the Black Panther Party who named him as the killer. He had been convicted of the murder of Caroline Olsen based upon evidence provided to the prosecutors in Los Angeles by a member of the Party who was confidential informant.
The informant was Julius C. “Julio” Butler, who had worked for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department before joining the Black Panther Party. Butler told authorities that Pratt had admitted committing the murder.
The victim’s husband also identified Pratt as one of the killers, but previously the husband had identified someone else. That previous identification was kept from the jury.
According to Liberation, Geronimo was born Elmer Gerard Pratt on Sept. 13, 1947, in Morgan City, Louisiana. The town’s black community suffered a number of attacks by the Ku Klux Klan, and when Pratt was 15 one of his brothers was viciously beaten by Klan members.
Growing up, Geronimo helped his father in the scrap business, as did his three brothers. In “Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt” by Jack Olsen, Geronimo recounted: “Daddy taught us to be tough … me and my brothers, we worked in that fire and smoke till we near dropped, baled up rope, rags, newspapers, ripped the lead plates out of batteries, raked hot ashes for coat hangers and wire springs and bolts. … We could break the welds and chop up a car in an hour.”
The Deacons of Defense, an armed, self-help group of African-American men was founded in Jonesboro, Louisiana, to protect their community from the violence of racist groups. The Morgan City chapter of the Deacons influenced Pratt and other young men to join the armed forces to secure military training they could use to protect their community. Upon his discharge from the U.S. Army after two tours in Vietnam, Pratt went to California, where he became affiliated with the Black Panther Party.
Within months of joining the Black Panthers, Pratt rose to the position of deputy minister of defense. His personality and military training resulted in him being chosen over fellow Panther “Julio” Butler — the same man who would soon be his accuser. Butler saw himself in that position, and the Panthers’ selection of Pratt led to a tenuous relationship between the two.
“A bitter rivalry developed between Pratt and Butler,” according to the Los Angeles Times. “Pratt and other Panthers accused Butler of being a police informant, while Butler accused them of threatening his life.”
In time Butler gave information to the FBI, and he was thrown out of the Panthers under a cloud of suspicion, according to FBI documents released later (Butler says he left of his own accord).
Soon after his separation from the Black Panther Party, Butler told Los Angeles Police that Pratt had told him he killed Caroline Olsen — a tip that eventually led to Pratt’s conviction.
After a long fought battle to gain freedom, Pratt sued and settled for $4.5 million, which he used to assist programs that benefit children in his home town of Morgan City. In his later days, Pratt divided his time between Morgan City and his home in Africa.