Free at Last: L.A. Prosecutor Drops Attempt to Retry Man Imprisoned 27 Years

February 17, 1999 12:00 am

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Wednesday, February 17, 1999

LOS ANGELES, CA –Saying that justice has finally been done, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California today applauded the decision by city officials not to retry Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt in a 30-year old murder case or appeal the decision throwing out Pratt’s 1972 conviction.

The decision was announced one day after a state appeals court ruled unanimously that the District Attorney’s office and the Los Angeles Police Department wrongly withheld evidence in the case, which denied Pratt the right to a fair trial.

“Yesterday’s unanimous decision by the California Court of Appeal recognized that the murder conviction of Geronimo Pratt was fundamentally unfair,” said ACLU of Southern California Legal Director Mark Rosenbaum, who argued the case before the appeals court.

“The improper withholding of evidence by the LA District Attorneys’ Office — evidence that would likely have led to an acquittal of Mr. Pratt — caused the near 27 year imprisonment of a man on an unconstitutional conviction. Three decades of injustice is more than enough to ask Mr. Pratt to endure.”

Pratt spent nearly 27 years in prison for the 1968 robbery/murder of school teacher Caroline Olsen, in Santa Monica. During the original trial, prosecutors withheld evidence that their key witness, Julius Butler, was a confidential informant for the LAPD, the FBI and LA District Attorney’s Office. While Butler served as an informant, he was allowed to go free for one felony charge and escaped prosecution for at least three others.

Prosecutors also withheld information that another man was initially identified as the murderer. Since eyewitness accounts were shaky at best, the prosecution relied on Butler’s testimony and suppressed evidence could have devastated his credibility and helped Pratt win an acquittal. Finally, in 1993, after the trial, an appeal, five habeas corpus petitions and intense pressure, the DA’s office disclosed this crucial information.

In May 1997, Orange County Superior Court Judge Everett W. Dickey ruled that the prosecution suppressed evidence that could have led to a different verdict. The court vacated Pratt’s sentence and ordered him released on bail. The Los Angeles County District Attorney promptly appealed the ruling, attempting to send Pratt back to prison. But today the D.A.’s office reversed their stance for good.

“It would be virtually impossible to retry this case,” said LA District Attorney Garcetti. “In our professional judgment, there would be no reasonable likelihood of conviction. In addition, Mr. Pratt has served 27 years in prison. For these reasons, we will not proceed further with this case.”

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