by Dr. Boyce Watkins
Former Black Panther Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt died Thursday in Tanzania, according to his attorney. Pratt spent 27 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. He died at the age of 63, and authorities do not yet know his exact cause of death.
“He could’ve been a great leader. He was very charismatic,” said Scott Hanlon, Pratt’s attorney. “His legacy is that he never gave up. He never got despondent or angry.”
Hanlon also describes Pratt to be a true and loyal American, noting that the former Panther did two tours of duty in Vietnam before joining the party. He was convicted of the 1968 murder of Caroline Olsen, who was killed on a tennis court in Santa Monica. His conviction was overturned in 1997 after prosecutors were found to have concealed evidence.
Pratt was not identified by the woman’s husband to have been the killer. The husband had actually identified another man in the police lineup. The jury was not informed of this information, which would have obviously hurt the case of the prosecution. Several attorneys, including both Hanlon and the great Johnny Cochran, played a role in getting Pratt’s conviction overturned before he died in 2005.
What’s most amazing is that Pratt said that he holds no ill will for his conviction.
“I don’t think bitterness has a place. I’m more understanding,” Pratt said in a 1999 interview with CNN. “Understanding doesn’t leave any room for bitterness or anger.”
For eight of his 27 years in prison, Pratt was placed in solitary confinement. This fact alone would be enough to drive most of us to the mad house. The idea that a man who put his life on the line for America would be treated in this way is nothing less than shameful. To lose 27 years of a 63 year life is devastating, and my psyche fills with the tears of rage as I think about what was done to this man.
Without question, Geronimo Pratt should be saluted for being the great American hero that he was. He was driven to stand up on behalf of the oppressed while living in a nation that had trained its young to be so evil that they learned to hate an entire group of people without even knowing them. I’ve often wondered to myself (as I watched an interesting documentary last night about a known racist by the name of Walt Disney) how these folks, whose lives hardly seemed to intersect with African Americans (there was not one black face in the entire documentary) could find the time to learn to dislike us so much. This kind of evil must be taught, for it is not natural for anyone to harbor this kind of innate animosity.
What must be remembered is that Geronimo was not the only African American to be wrongly accused and sentenced for a crime they did not commit. There are tens of thousands of other men and women just like him who were either wrongly convicted or given an excessive sentence that they would never have received had they not been poor and black. It’s time that our nation take a serious look at the criminal justice system and find out how many other lives we’ve destroyed, for I am convinced that there is another Geronimo in a cell somewhere right now.