Today the California Court of Appeal unanimously ruled that the District Attorney’s office and the Los Angeles Police Department wrongly withheld evidence which denied Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt the right to a fair trial.
Elmer ‘Geronimo’ 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 FBI and LA District Attorney’s Office. While Butler served as an informant, he was allowed to go free for one felony 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. The suppressed evidence could have devastated Butler’s 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, vacated Pratt’s sentence and ordered him released on bail. The Los Angeles County District Attorney appealed the ruling, attempting to send Pratt back to prison.
In today’s unanimous decision, the Court wrote, “[T]he evidence clearly established the existence of a cooperative relationship [between Butler and] various law enforcement personnel that was much closer than Pratt was able to show or argue at trial…. This type of impeachment goes far beyond an attack on a witness’s credibility in general….[W]e agree with Judge Dickey’s conclusion that the information that was not available at trial would have permitted ‘potentially devastating cross-examination or other impeachment evidence regarding Butler in important respects.’ ”
Mark Rosenbaum, Legal Director of the ACLU/SC said, “Today’s unanimous decision by the California Court of Appeal is a resounding affirmation of the fundamental right to a fair trial. The improper withholding of evidence by the LA District Attorney’s Office — evidence that would likely have led to an acquittal of Mr. Pratt — caused nearly 27 years of imprisonment of a man on an unconstitutional conviction. Today’s ruling sends the message that three decades of injustice is more than enough. We call on District Attorney Gil Garcetti to accept today’s ruling as the end to this case. Enough is enough.”