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Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt: Black Panther Leader, 27 Years for a Crime He Did Not Commit

The City Project Celebrates Black History Month

Geronimo with his defense attorneys Robert Garcia, Kathleen Cleaver, Stuart Hanlon and Johnnie Cochran the day of his release, June 10, 1997

geronimo ji Jaga (preferred capitalization), also known as Geronimo Pratt, a former Black Panther leader, was wrongfully convicted for the murder of a woman in Santa Monica, California. geronimo has always maintained that he was 400 miles away in Oakland, California, at the time of the killing at a Black Panther meeting, and that he was a victim of the FBI’s Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO).  geronimo became head of the Los Angeles chapter of the Black Panther party when he was a student at UCLA  after the assassination of  Bunchy Carter and John Huggins.  geronimo is a decorated war hero and Vietnam Vet.

Represented by Stuart Hanlon, Johnnie Cochran, Robert Garcia, and other members of his defense team, geronimo had his murder conviction and life sentence vacated on May 29, 1997. He was released from prison on June 10, 1997. Judge Everett W. Dickey, of the California Superior Court in Santa Ana, held that the prosecution denied geronimo a fair trial in violation of his constitutional rights. The prosecution suppressed material evidence relating to the question of guilt and to the credibility of a material witness, in violation of the 1966 United States Supreme Court ruling in Brady v. Maryland.

The prosecution appealed to reverse Judge Dickey’s decision. geronimo filed his response on July 1, 1998, represented by Stuart Hanlon; Johnnie Cochran; Robert Garcia; Julie Drous; Mark Rosenbaum and David Schwartz of the ACLU of Southern California; and Professors Anthony G. Amsterdam of NYU Law School, James Liebman of Columbia Law School, and Robert Weisberg of Stanford Law School.  The court of appeal held that the prosecution’s arguments were “disingenous” and “without merit.”

The evidence that the prosecution withheld about prosecution witness Julius Butler could have put the whole case in a different light and the failure to disclose it undermines confidence in the jury verdict, according to Judge Dickey. Butler engaged in informing activities on behalf of the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The prosecution was required to provide this information to the defense in order to allow the jury to assess Butler’s motives and credibility as a witness. The information would have permitted potentially devastating cross-examination or other
impeachment of Butler.

Questions about the integrity of geronimo’s conviction had previously led to investigations by members of the United States Congress. Amnesty International began investigating the case in 1980, published a study in 1988, and filed an amicus brief in support of geronimo on appeal. This was only the third time in the organization’s 30 year history that it had filed an amicus brief on behalf of an individual.

Centurion Ministries works for the release of prison inmates who are innocent of the crimes for which they have been wrongfully convicted. Centurion Ministries had received 3,981 requests for help from inmates between 1992 and 1998. From those requests they accepted eleven inmates as clients. geronimo was one of those eleven.

Today geronimo is free and living in African and Louisiana.

Read the decision by Judge Dickey reversing geronimo’s conviction here.

Read the appellate court decision upholding the reversal of geronimo’s conviction here.

Read Ed Boyer’s coverage of the geronimo’s legal odyssey here.

Jack Olson published a book LAST MAN STANDING: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt.