On the Road to Jericho '98

The Railroad of Geronimo Ji Jaga

Prosecution Still After Geronimo

Revolutionary Worker #945, February 22, 1998

Geromino Ji Jaga is no longer in prison--but his name remains on the Jericho list of political prisoners. He is out, but not yet free.

On June 10th, 1997, after nearly 27 years in prison, Geronimo Ji Jaga--previously known as Geronimo Pratt--stepped into the sunlight. Framed and railroaded for murder, sentenced to life in prison, locked down in the hole for eight years, denied parole 16 times because he refused to recant his revolutionary beliefs, gassed and beaten--Geronimo Ji Jaga spent 27 year behind bars for a crime the authorities knew he did not commit.

On May 29, 1997, Judge Everett W. Dickey threw out Geronimo's 1972 murder conviction, ruling that the government had built their case around a police informant and had kept this, and other crucial evidence, from the defense in Geronimo's trial. But despite this ruling, the Los Angeles D.A. Gil Garcetti has refused to acknowledge that Geronimo Ji Jaga was unjustly imprisoned. And on Friday January 30, Garcetti appealed the release of Geronimo.

Even the Los Angeles Times charged that Garcetti is on a "fool's errand." "The arguments in the 202-page appeal that Los Angeles prosecutors filed Friday are the same lame ones that Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey rejected in finding that the trial was tainted," the Times wrote, "The far smarter move would have been to just drop this sorry case.... The prosecution of Pratt seemed politically motivated from the start, with many convinced that prosecutors and the FBI sought to neutralize the Black Panther Party here through this conviction." But despite the fact that continued prosecution of Geronimo can only expose the system more, powerful forces in the system seem unable to let go of this case. And in many ways, the story of Geronimo, including this latest move by the system, sheds light on the whole process of political persecution behind the imprisonment of political prisoners in this country.

Targeted by COINTELPRO

In the late 1960s and early '70s, when Geronimo was a young revolutionary, the whole system of U.S. imperialism was being challenged--from the War in Vietnam to the revolutionary movements at home. Federal agencies led by the FBI created COINTELPRO, a "counterintelligence" program, aimed at targeting, harassing, sabotaging, jailing and murdering radicals and revolutionaries. A major focus of COINTELPRO was destroying key leaders within the Black Liberation movement, and one of their main targets was the Black Panther Party.

In November 1968 FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover sent a secret order to his field agents saying that "recipient offices are instructed to submit imaginative and hard-hitting counterintelligence measures aimed at crippling the BPP." FBI agents organized murderous armed assaults on Panther offices and leaders. They attempted to infiltrate snitches into the Party, they framed Panther leaders and carried out "disinformation" campaigns. These included forging letters and starting rumors to create splits in the Panthers and other organizations, and disunity between revolutionaries and other sympathetic forces.

Within two months of Hoover's secret memo, agents of the FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) had organized members of the nonrevolutionary "cultural nationalist" organization US (led by Ron Karenga) to assassinate two leaders of the L.A. Panthers--Bunchy Carter and John Huggins. Bunchy had brought many "brothers on the block" into the revolutionary ranks. Without him, the police expected the L.A. Panther chapter to fall apart.

But new forces filled the shoes of fallen leaders. Geronimo Pratt, a 21-year-old combat veteran of the Vietnam War, emerged as a new skillful leader of the L.A. Panther chapter.

Geronimo was targeted by COINTELPRO--to be "neutralized." He was wiretapped, surveilled and arrested constantly. Behind the scenes, police agents worked overtime to cook up some way of setting him up for prison or assassination. COINTELPRO agents have since revealed that the police teams examined many different unsolved crimes to see which one they could most easily use to frame Geronimo in court.

Late in 1969, four days after Illinois Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were murdered in the night by the FBI and Chicago cops, 40 SWAT police and 100 regular LAPD--in coordination with the FBI--launched an early morning armed assault on the Southern California Black Panther headquarters on Central Ave. But the Panthers--led by Geronimo--insisted that people take the possibility of a police assault seriously. The headquarters building had two stories. Because of the preparations, and the heroic actions of the Panthers who shot back at the police, the cops were not able to get up to the second floor. As the Panthers held out inside the building, masses gathered around the police lines, forcing the cops to retreat.

Six Panthers were wounded, 13 were arrested, but because of their successful self-defense, no Panthers were killed that night. Using the same assassination techniques that murdered Fred Hampton, the LAPD aimed their fire to hit Geronimo's bed--but Geronimo had decided to sleep on the floor that night, narrowly escaping the police bullets.

The arrested Panthers were charged with "assaulting the police" and Geronimo spent two months in jail until $125,000 bond was raised. On a nationwide tour, Geronimo was hounded by police surveillance and COINTELPRO disinformation designed to foment distrust against him--as a major line struggle was underway within the Panther party itself.

The Original Railroad

In December 1970, one year after the L.A. raid, Geronimo was arrested and falsely charged with the killing of Caroline Olsen. Caroline Olsen was killed on a tennis court in Santa Monica in 1968 during a robbery where $18 was stolen. Her husband Kenneth Olsen was wounded.

From the beginning it was clear that Geronimo was being framed. At the time of the 1968 robbery he was 400 miles away at a Black Panther Party retreat in Oakland, California. He called L.A. from the Oakland Panther office two and half hours before the robbery. Although the full extent of COINTELPRO operations did not emerge until years later, it was well known that leaders of the Black Panther Party were under heavy government surveillance. Articles in the progressive media at the time questioned where the FBI surveillance logs of the Oakland meeting were. And in 1975 two private investigators saw the 1968 wiretap logs while investigating another case--the logs revealed that the FBI knew that Geronimo was on Bobby Seale's telephone in Oakland shortly before the murder and could not have been in Santa Monica. The FBI now claims that wiretap and other surveillance records of the Panthers during the week of the tennis court robbery in 1968 were "lost."

Geronimo's alibi was further undermined because the COINTELPRO operation had succeeded in driving a wedge between different factions of the Panthers, and leading Panthers were discouraged from testifying. At the 1972 trial, Kathleen Cleaver was the only Panther leader to testify in Geronimo's defense. Twenty years later, six former BPP members testified that Geronimo was at the Oakland meeting.

In Geronimo's original trial in 1972, the prosecution offered no physical evidence linking Geronimo to the murder. The prosecution's flimsy case rested on the testimony of only two witnesses. One of these witnesses, named Julius Butler, was a police informant. Butler testified that Geronimo "confessed" to him that he had committed the Santa Monica tennis court robbery. Butler swore that he was not a police informant. But since Geronimo's conviction, numerous documents from the LAPD and the FBI have identified Julius Butler as an informant who snitched on the Panthers for two years. FBI documents released in 1979 disclosed that Butler had more than 30 documented contacts with agents before Geronimo's trial in 1972.

Butler was a former L.A. County Deputy Sheriff who joined the Black Panther Party in Los Angeles in the late '60s. At one point, he had some responsibilities for security for the Panthers. But many Panther members found a lot of reasons not to trust him. In 1969, for example, Butler and six other Panthers were charged in a case of kidnaping. In a pre-trial hearing, Butler pleaded guilty, without even talking to his lawyer, and was given probation and a $200 fine. This was highly unusual treatment for a Black Panther convicted of four felonies!

In 1970 Butler was expelled from the Black Panther Party. Two days later, he produced a "letter" which he said he had written earlier, accusing Geronimo of the 1968 robbery. The police used this "letter" as a pretext to arrest, frame and convict Geronimo.

Evidence of the Frame-up and the Struggle for a New Trial

In 1992 Geronimo's defense team presented evidence of a wide-ranging government frame-up to the L.A. County District Attorney, Gil Garcetti, who promised a thorough investigation. After three years nothing had been done. Finally, on February 26, 1996, Geronimo's lawyers filed a writ of habeas corpus in the L.A. Superior Court.

Stuart Hanlon, Geronimo's main attorney, announced, "We have come back to Los Angeles, the scene of the crime. Not the crime which Mr. Pratt was convicted of, but where the crime of his original conviction occurred--The Los Angeles Criminal Courts Building."

On December 16, 1996, new hearings in Santa Ana, California, centered around Julius Butler. Butler is a lawyer and at the time of these hearings he was the chairman of the board of directors of the First AME Church, one of the largest Black churches in L.A.

For the first time in 25 years, Julius Butler was forced to testify about his role in the railroad of Geronimo. Geronimo's lawyers produced documents from the LAPD, FBI and L.A. County DA's office identifying Butler as a government informant. In the face of this, Butler told Geronimo's lawyer Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr. that he was not an informant. Butler tried to say he was just a "concerned citizen who was passing along information." But Butler was finally forced to admit that he was "acting as an informant" at certain times.

Despite Julius Butler's attempt to twist the truth, the hearings established new details about his relationship to law enforcement agencies. Two LAPD officers, Duwayne Rice and Edward Henry, testified about their numerous contacts with Julius Butler. In the words of Geronimo's attorney Stuart Hanlon, they painted a picture of a "classic informant relationship with law enforcement."

According to the law, the prosecution and every other state agency, including the police, are required to reveal all evidence to the defense. This is especially true when they have evidence that would help people prove their innocence. If a person is convicted and it comes out later that the prosecution covered up important information, the convicted person has the right to a new trial.

The December 1996 hearing in Santa Ana also revealed new evidence on how the prosecution handled not only Julius Butler but the other main witness used against Geronimo--the surviving robbery victim Kenneth Olsen. One of the investigators on the case testified that he thought Kenneth Olsen was "flaky." Before Olsen had fingered Geronimo, he had already identified two other "suspects" as the killer of his wife, including one "suspect" who was in jail at the time of the robbery. None of this crucial information was given to the defense.

Uncovering the Truth

"It's about time! It's about fucking time" Stuart Hanlon told reporters, after Judge Everett W. Dickey ruled on May 29, 1997, that Geronimo Ji Jaga should be released. The ruling stated that because crucial evidence was withheld from the defense, Geronimo had been denied a fair trial and the verdict against him should be overturned. "It's hard to say this case shows the justice system works when it takes this long to free an innocent man." Hanlon, Geronimo's lawyer for 24 years--on a volunteer basis, has been co-counsel with Johnnie Cochran in the quarter century fight for a new trial.

The judge found that the evidence before the court "makes it clear that prosecution witness Julius C. Butler...had been, for at least three years before the trial, providing information about the Black Panther Party and individuals associated with it to law enforcement agencies on a confidential basis." The agencies cited by the judge include the LAPD, the FBI and L.A. District Attorney's Office which prosecuted Geronimo. The decision stated that the DA's own records listed Butler as an informant and that one investigator for the DA's office had even been instructed by a supervisor that he needed permission to talk to Butler from FBI agent George Akin because Butler "belongs to George." After receiving permission from the FBI, Butler was considered an informant of the DA's office. Butler was even provided with $200 by a detective in the DA's office to buy a handgun (which he could not legally own because he had been convicted of a felony in 1969).

Other evidence concealed from the defense pointed to an FBI/LAPD setup of Geronimo. The judge found that records available to the DA showed that Butler had delivered a letter which implicated Geronimo in the death of Caroline Olsen to LAPD Sgt. Rice and that Rice was immediately approached by two FBI agents who demanded the letter be surrendered to them as "evidence."

The judge summed up that this information "if properly and timely disclosed to competent defense counsel, would have permitted potentially devastating cross-examination or other impeachment evidence regarding Butler in important respects."

The judge also noted that Butler had given false testimony at the 1972 trial by swearing, "I've never been an informant" and that LAPD Sgt. Rice had "left a grossly inaccurate impress on the jury as to the scope of Butler's activities which was not corrected by the prosecutor."

In refuting claims that the defense was not diligent in uncovering this information, the judge noted that: "It is highly unlikely that criminal defense attorneys for a known Black Panther leader in 1972 would have been able to obtain any information about a prosecution witness of the type mentioned herein just by asking law enforcement agents for it, especially where such extensive efforts were made to keep his informing activities confidential (such as the LAPD officers' falsifying of a police report with the permission of the Acting Police Chief....)"

the Prosecutor's "Case"

The decision focused on whether Geronimo had received a fair trial and did not actually come to a conclusion on Geronimo's innocence in the robbery-murder. For instance, the decision did not deal with evidence which shows that Geronimo was actually 400 miles away at the time the robbery-murder of Caroline Olsen occurred. However, the judge made several points in the decision which broadly discredited the prosecutor's case.

The judge pointed out that for two years Geronimo was never viewed by the police as a suspect in the December 18, 1968 Santa Monica tennis court robbery-murder--until the information from Butler was made available many months later. He also pointed out that it was significant that Butler was the only witness who testified that Geronimo confessed to the crime--noting that such reported "confessions" are known to have a strong influence on juries.

The judge also noted that other eyewitness accounts--such as testimony of Caroline Olsen's husband who was wounded and a witness who said she saw Geromino "under threatening circumstances" at her place of business before the robbery-murder--were not reliable. He noted that the "possible unreliability of such cross-racial identifications of strangers based on a brief period of observation under stressful conditions has become so well known in the years since Petitioner's trial that judges now almost always specially instruct a jury in the subject upon request whenever eyewitness identification evidence is offered by the prosecution."In other words it is so common for whites in such situations to misidentify Black people that even the case law has to acknowledge this problem.

Putting the Case
in a Different Light

A very important aspect of the decision was where the judge pointed out that Geronimo's defense did not need to prove that the information about Butler which was hidden by the prosecution would have led to an acquittal. "He need only show that the cumulative impact of the evidence which should have been disclosed could reasonably be taken to put the whole case in such a different light as to undermine confidence in the verdict."

The court concluded that Geronimo had "met his burden of showing that the evidence which was withheld about Julius Butler and his activities could have put the whole case in a different light, and failure to timely disclose it undermines confidence in the verdict. The failure of the prosecution to disclose denies Petitioner the fair trial guaranteed by the United States Constitution by impairing defense counsel's ability to fully impeach the credibility of a key prosecution witness." He concluded that "confidence in the verdict is undermined, and Petitioner is entitled to habeas corpus relief as requested." He "vacated" the 1975 judgment which sentenced Geronimo to life imprisonment, and discharged Geronimo from state prison.

The decision confirmed what so many people already knew--that the LAPD, FBI, and DA's office conspired to railroad this revolutionary brother and stole 25 years of his life.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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