The affecting story of Geronimo Pratt, an innocent man confined in California’s roughest prisons for 26 years.
Pratt’s life divides, roughly, into two parts: the first ends with his murder conviction in 1972, the second concludes with his release from prison in 1997. Olsen (Hastened to the Grave, 1998, etc.) begins in Morgan City, Louisiana, where Elmer Gerald Pratt was born in 1947. With six siblings, an industrious and principled father, and a mother who preached education, Pratt seemed headed to college. But the community elders, anticipating racial violence and seeing a shortage of young African-Americans with military training, encouraged Pratt to join the armed forces. He signed on with the 82nd Airborne and fought bravely in two tours in Vietnam. After his return stateside he enrolled at UCLA, where he became friends with “Bunchy” Carter, the founder of the Southern California Black Panther Party. Carter nicknamed Pratt “Geronimo”—not after the American Indian, but from an African tribal name meaning “warrior.” Around this time the Black Panthers were under heavy surveillance; the LAPD harassed their community work, while the FBI’s Counter-Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) planted spies, fomented internal dissension, and finally, the author claims, framed Pratt for the murder of a white woman in 1968. While the author’s focus is on Pratt, his background sketches of Vietnam and L.A. in the late 1960s are vivid and fascinating. Represented by Johnnie Cochran and Stuart Hanlon (who, along with Pratt, are the author’s main sources), Pratt was convicted and sent to jail. Hanlon appealed the sentence for 26 years—during which time two men confessed to the murder, the leading witness for the prosecution was found to have links to the FBI, and credible sources reaffirmed Pratt’s alibi. But the courts did nothing. Finally, a last appeal succeeded in 1997.
A powerful story of individual fortitude and bureaucratic pigheadedness.