The Black Panther leader Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, who spent 27 years in prison for a murder of which he was later exonerated, died yesterday at his home in Tanzania at the age of 63. His fellow former Black Panther Pete O'Neal told the Associated Press he probably died of a heart attack, but that hasn't been officially confirmed yet. He had lived in the city of Arusha for at least five years, reports the AP.
Pratt, who joined the Black Panthers in 1968 after he finished a tour with the Army in Vietnam and started at UCLA, was convicted of shooting Caroline Olson in a robbery that netted $18. He has said the FBI had him under surveillance in Oakland at the time of the murder in Santa Monica, but the prosecution didn't share that information with his defense lawyers before his conviction in 1972. In 1997, a judge in Orange County Superior Court ruled that prosecutors had withheld evidence -- namely that a key witness against him, Julius Butler, was an FBI and Los Angeles Police Department informant -- and he was released. Later, a federal judge awarded him $4.5 million in a false-imprisonment and civil rights lawsuit.
As the Los Angeles Times points out in its obituary, "Pratt's case became a cause celebre for a range of supporters, including elected officials, activists, Amnesty International, clergy and celebrities who believed he was framed by Los Angeles police and the FBI because he was African American and a member of the radical Black Panthers." In 1980, two activists hoisted a banner on the Statue of Liberty that read, "Liberty was Framed - Free Geronimo Pratt."
Pratt's attorney from the 1997 verdict, Stuart Hanlon, told the Times, "Geronimo was a powerful leader... For that reason, he was targeted." After he gained his freedom, Pratt continued his activist work, participating in the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, who is currently on death row for murder, but who many believe to be innocent. According to Hip Hop Wired and a number of other sources, Pratt was Tupac Shakur's godfather. He is survived by his daughter, three sons, two sisters and two brothers.