A Panther set to bite back

Elmer Pratt (above) was jailed for murder in 1972. His defenders allege he was framed by the FBI. Now moves to free him, led by OJ Simpson's lawyer Johnnie Cochran, could bring racial politics to the fore in the battle for the White House. By Daniel Jeffreys
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For more than 24 years Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt has been an inmate of Mule Creek State Prison in northern California. Watchtowers look down on him and his 3,500 fellow inmates, separated from the surrounding farmland by 10ft-high fences topped with two feet of razor wire.

The fences are the closest that outsiders, in particular the press, can get to Pratt. The State of California has banned media interviews with any inmate until the end of 1996. This keeps Pratt's lips sealed during the crucial election period - but now he has others who can speak for him, and the tale they tell could have ramifications far beyond the state of California.

Pratt was just 23 when he was convicted of murdering a woman on her tennis court during a botched robbery. At the time of the offence he was the 21-year-old leader of the Los Angeles Black Panther Party, the radical group devoted to promoting equality for blacks through violent revolution. But now there is a growing body of supporters convinced that Pratt is innocent.

"Elmer Pratt was framed," says a former FBI agent, Wesley Swearingen, who shared a desk with the FBI agent who handled the Pratt case in Los Angeles. "The FBI have always known he was somewhere else at the time the murders took place. J Edgar Hoover [then director of the FBI] wanted the Panthers in prison or dead. He targeted the Panthers and Pratt for elimination."

On Wednesday, Pratt's lawyers will make moves to have their client released on bail while the case is reconsidered. A legal battle is expected, which could become a key issue in the race for the White House. California has more votes than any other state in the "electoral college" which decides the presidential election, and both President Clinton and the Republican nominee - almost certain to be Bob Dole - will be pressed to take a stand on Pratt's case.

Pratt's lawyers have already filed a petition for habeas corpus in Los Angeles to overturn his conviction for first degree murder. On Wednesday, they will present new evidence of an FBI smear campaign authorised by Hoover. Documents will show that the main testimony against Pratt came from an FBI informant, a fact the bureau kept from Pratt's lawyers and the jury at his trial. They will also release documents which suggest the FBI destroyed evidence that would have given Pratt a cast-iron alibi.

The lawyer marshalling the arguments for Pratt has a fame that far transcends the courtroom. Johnnie Cochran became one of the most famous lawyers in the world last year when he helped free OJ Simpson. He has his own reasons for taking on this case, which will hardly cover the cost of his daily fax bill. As a 29-year old rookie, Cochran was Elmer Pratt's defence attorney at his original trial in July 1972. The FBI knew every part of his trial strategy in advance; without his knowledge they had placed an informant in the young lawyer's office. Cochran admits that he was "very naive" in the way he handled the original case, but this time it is different: he now carries much more clout and knows just how to use it to embarrass the Los Angeles legal establishment.

Elmer Pratt became involved with the Black Panthers after he returned from the Vietnam war, a decorated veteran with an honourable discharge. In late 1968 he enrolled as a full-time student at UCLA, where he made friends with the Los Angeles Black Panther leaders, Bunchy Carter and John Huggins.

On 18 December 1968, 23-year-old Carolyn Olsen and her 25-year-old husband, Kenneth, both white, strolled on to a Santa Monica public tennis court to play an early evening game. Ten minutes later both had been shot in cold blood after two black men had robbed them of cash and a wallet. Carolyn Olsen died. Kenneth Olsen testified that only one assailant had fired and described him as "clean shaven". At the time of the killing Pratt had a beard. Olsen picked another man out of a police line-up. Los Angeles attorney Larry Rivetz remembers the incident.

"The man identified by Olsen is Ronald Perkins, he was my client," says Rivetz. "I knew it couldn't be him because on the night of the murder Perkins was in jail. I didn't think about the Olsen case again until I read about Pratt's conviction and saw that Ken Olsen had identified Pratt as the suspect. Olsen testified that Pratt was the only person he ever picked out. When I tried to get Perkins' line-up card, it had disappeared - I've never known that happen before or since."

Johnnie Cochran didn't know about the Perkins line-up either; if he had he could have cast doubt on Ken Olsen's powers of observation at the trial.

Pratt's indictment for Olsen's murder did not take place until December 1970. In the two years between the crime and his arrest, Pratt rose to the leadership of the Los Angeles Black Panthers. According to Pratt's lawyers this made him a prime target for J Edgar Hoover's Counter Intelligence Programme, known as Cointelpro.

In 1966 Bobby Seale and Huey P Newton began the Black Panther Party for Self Defense. By 1969 it had 40 chapters nationwide and a membership of over 8,000. The Panthers made themselves popular in Los Angeles with monthly free breakfasts serving more than 10,000 children. The Black Panther newspaper built a weekly circulation of over 100,000.

At the same time US race relations were in turmoil. There was still segregation in the South and several cities burned after race riots. Vietnam war protests divided the nation. In this atmosphere Hoover identified black radicalism as the main threat to internal security and in 1967 set Cointelpro in motion. Its goals included "Prevent[ing] militant black nationalist groups and leaders from gaining respectability by discrediting them."

On 16 September 1970, a memo from Hoover instructed agents in six states to try to discredit the Black Panther leader Huey P Newton. Hoover then approved the forging of a letter from a rival black nationalist group indicating that Newton was marked for assassination. The purpose was to agitate the Panthers so they would instigate assassinations against the rival group.

The FBI often used this tactic to force black radical groups into violent conflict and in 1969 one such operation was completed when a rival group gunned down Bunchy Carter and John Huggins, Pratt's Black Panther mentors. The Panthers' national leadership quickly installed Pratt as the LA chief in their place. A classified FBI document dated 6 May 1969 says that counter- intelligence measures should be used for "neutralising Pratt as an effective Black Panther functionary".

The FBI was soon to find the ally they needed against Pratt. Julius Butler had expected to become the Los Angeles Black Panther leader and was upset when the younger Pratt leapfrogged him. Within four months of his appointment Pratt had expelled Butler, suspecting him of being an FBI informant. Pratt was right: documents held by the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI show that Butler became a police informant in 1965.

In August 1969 Butler delivered a letter to an LAPD Sergeant saying he feared assassination by Pratt. Butler said the letter should only be opened if he met with a violent death. The letter said that Pratt had confessed to the Olsen killing and had bragged about the way she died. Within minutes of Butler handing the letter to his LAPD contact the officer was surrounded by FBI agents demanding to see its contents. The officer refused until eight months later when Butler himself asked for the letter to be passed to the FBI. Pratt was arrested and charged soon afterwards.

With Butler to testify against Pratt, the FBI was confident, except for one obstacle: they knew for sure Pratt was elsewhere at the time of the murders. Throughout 1968 Pratt would travel regularly to the Black Panther headquarters in Oakland. "The bureau knew Pratt was in Oakland the day Olsen died," says Wes Swearingen. "They have him on a wire-tap making a call to LA two hours before the murder." Swearingen was with the FBI for over 20 years and received four commendations from Hoover but the Pratt case has persuaded him to break the bureau's code of secrecy.

In January 1972, just before Pratt's trial began, Swearingen was sharing a telephone with an agent called Brendan Cleary who was assigned to Pratt's case. "At one point I heard Cleary speaking with someone on the telephone about Pratt. I heard Cleary say, 'The son of a bitch was in Oakland'." The Oakland wire-tap logs for December 1968 have now "disappeared". At Pratt's trial the jury was not told that Julius Butler was an FBI informant or that Pratt was the subject of a Cointelpro operation. Three members of the original jury have sworn affidavits saying they could not have convicted Pratt had that information been available.

By contrast Julius Butler sticks by his original testimony. He is now a lawyer and a prominent member of the First AME Church, which played a central role in bringing the 1991 Los Angeles riots under control.

With the three jurors and Wes Swearingen, Johnnie Cochran has a good chance of winning for Geronimo Pratt this time. Sources close to the lawyer say he regards this case as "the big fish which got away, the case which radicalised him to the abuse and prejudice in the US system of justice". He will be helped by another set of documents which suggest Olsen was actually killed by two other men who have since died. The LAPD, it is claimed, has known about the existence of alternative suspects for over 20 years.

The Black Panthers were no angels: they were involved in bank robberies and killings and Pratt might have ended up dead or in jail anyway. None the less, the evidence seems to suggest the FBI broke the law and that others have been doing the same ever since to keep him in prison. Johnnie Cochran will be in court on Wednesday to say the lying has to stop, that it's time for the FBI to admit Pratt was just one victim from an era of vicious witchhunts. This time, on any view, Cochran seems to have a case worth fighting for.