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Geronimo Pratt, noted Black Panther, dead at 63

Herb Boyd | 6/14/2011, 1:41 p.m.

Special to the AmNews

Widely heralded as "Geronimo," Elmer Pratt was among the most principled and audacious members of the Black Panther Party, having served in the armed forces before committing himself to the Black liberation struggle. Pratt, 63, died Thursday, June 2, in a small village in Tanzania, East Africa, according to Associated Press, a story confirmed by a spokesperson for Stuart Hanlon, Pratt's former lawyer.

"Stuart had to go to court his morning," said a person in Hanlon's San Francisco office during a telephone interview on Friday. "We are still not sure about the cause of death." He was known to have suffered from high blood pressure.

Pratt moved to Tanzania about a decade ago, according to the spokesperson for Hanlon's office, where he lived with his wife and family.

It was in 1970, after being charged with murder and kidnapping, that Pratt commanded national attention as a member of the Black Panther Party. He served 27 years in prison, and thereby becoming one of the most noted political prisoners of his generation. That conviction was finally overturned or vacated in 1997, thanks to Hanlon and the tireless advocacy of the late Johnnie Cochran and the Rev. James McCloskey.

Much of Pratt's life and ordeal is engrossingly captured in Jack Olsen's biography Last Man Standing-The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt. It recounts Pratt's early years in Louisiana, his stint in the Army and tour of Vietnam that earned him several decorations, a brief stay at UCLA and his Panther days. Given his military background and knowledge, he quickly rose in the Panther ranks, becoming Deputy Minister of Defense and leader in the Party's Los Angeles chapter.

During this turbulent phase, including a shootout at UCLA that left two significant Panthers dead, Pratt's militancy and defiance made him among the most targeted Panthers by J. Edgar Hoover's FBI and its counter intelligence program (COINTELPRO). When an FBI informant within the Party testified that Pratt had murdered a young woman at a Santa Monica tennis court, Pratt was doomed to a long prison term.

Despite his claims of being in Oakland, California when the incident occurred Pratt was convicted. He and his lawyers charged that the FBI had deliberately lost or destroyed evidence that would have exonerated him.

The diligence of his defense team, like Pratt himself, never gave up in the search for a reversal of his sentence. Only after Hanlon and Cochran disclosed that a key prosecution witness revealed that he was formerly incarcerated and had hid information was Pratt released from prison, a term that included eight years of solitary confinement.

Pratt's odyssey was instructive for millions of Americans who have been unlawfully convicted. "It taught me and a lot of other lawyers never to accept the official version of an event, never accept a lab report, a forensic finding, never take so-called expert testimony at face value," said Cochran, after Pratt's release. "It taught me to check everything, then check it again. As a result, I see things I never saw before; ask questions I never asked before. I'm a better advocate for my clients. But what a price Geronimo had to pay."

Upon release Pratt threw himself totally in the renewed liberation struggle with a particular concern for his comrades still behind bars, the roster of political prisoners or prisoners of war, as viewed by many activists.

In 2000, Pratt settled a false imprisonment and civil rights lawsuit against the FBI and city of Los Angeles for $4.5 million.

"The FBI continued spying on Geronimo during his confinement, using a Black Panther visitor as an informant. The person confessed to him upon his release and he forgave the person as he did those involved in the assassination of Black Panther leaders Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter and John Huggins, including US leader, Maulana Karenga," said noted poet Marvin X. "His spirit of reconciliation must be emulated by those in the Black Liberation Movement today. We love you and shall miss you, but we know your position with the ancestors is secure."