Revolution #235, June 12, 2011

Geronimo Ji Jaga PrattA Political Prisoner for 27 Years in the USA

On June 2, former Black Panther Party (BPP) leader Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt died in Africa. Geronimo served 27 years in jail after being framed for murder, and was released in 1997 after a long, fierce political and legal battle that brought to light dimensions of the system’s moves to isolate, kill off, frame up, and jail the revolutionary movement of the '60s. After his release, Geronimo continued to search for ways to contribute to ending the oppression of Black people.

The following is drawn from coverage of the frame-up, and struggle, to free Geronimo Ji Jaga (Pratt) that appeared in The Revolutionary Worker─as Revolution was previously known.

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On June 10, 1997, after nearly 27 years in prison, Geronimo Ji Jagapreviously known as Geronimo Prattstepped 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 beatenGeronimo 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.

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 instigated members of the nonrevolutionary "cultural nationalist" organization US (led by Ron Karenga) to kill 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 Panthersled 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, 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.


In December 1970, one year after the L.A. raid, Geronimo was arrested and falsely charged with the killing of Caroline Olsen. 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.

The government had wiretapped phone conversations all along that proved Geronimo was far away when this took place. 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 Black Panther Party office two-and-a-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.

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 later claimed that wiretap and other surveillance records of the Panthers during the week of the tennis court robbery in 1968 were "lost."

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, 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.

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.

The Struggle for a New Trial

During the entire time Geronimo was in jail, activists waged political struggle to publicize and protest his frame-up. And, 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.

On December 16, 1996, new hearings in Santa Ana, California, centered around Julius Butler. 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.

The hearings established new details about Butler’s 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 Geronimothe 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....)."

Shortly after his release, Geronimo spoke at Lil’ Bobby Hutton Park in West Oakland. He was greeted by thousands of people Black youth from the Oakland ghetto, progressive people from different backgrounds, and activists who had worked tirelessly for the overturn of his conviction.

Political Prisoners in the USA

The case of Geronimo Ji Jaga (Pratt) was one of many political frame-ups used by the government against the Black Panther Party and other revolutionaries in the 1960s, and in the period since. Today, Mumia Abu Jamal, a former Black Panther Party member, revolutionary journalist, and unrepentant opponent of oppression, sits on death row in Pennsylvania. Mumia’s conviction was based on falsified evidence and his sentencing overtly based on his political beliefsprosecutors cited Mumia quoting Mao Tsetung as part of their argument for the death penalty.

Native American activist Leonard Peltier has served almost 35 years in jail for his role in the uprising of Native Americans at Wounded Knee in 1973, site of the massacre of 300 Sioux men, women and children in 1890, and other Native American resistance against ongoing genocide and theft of Indian land.

For more on political prisoners in the USA, see "It's Right to Fight Against Oppression!: Political Prisoners in the U.S.” in the special issue of Revolution on prisons and prisoners, November 15, 2009─available at

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