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Former Black Panther freed after 27 years in jail


June 10, 1997
Web posted at: 6:02 p.m. EDT (2202 GMT)

SANTA ANA, California (CNN) -- Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt, a former Black Panther whose murder conviction was overturned, was released on bail Tuesday after 27 years in jail.

A beaming Pratt, wearing wire-rim glasses, a goatee and a white and tan shirt, thanked a swarm of supporters as he took his first steps in bright sunshine as a free man.

vxtreme logoVXtreme streaming video - Elmer "Geronimo" Pratt talks to reporters after being released on bail

"I don't have any bitterness in my heart," said Pratt with his attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. at his side.

Pratt also restated his innocence in the 1968 murder of Santa Monica teacher Caroline Olsen, and said he would welcome a new trial to set the record straight.

Pratt has maintained he was railroaded for the killing as FBI and police sought to undermine the Black Panther movement in California. Over the years, he was turned down for parole 16 times.

He praised Superior Court Judge Everett Dickey, who ruled last month that Pratt had not received a fair trial.

"Right now, I'm just overwhelmed with all this love and support," Pratt said outside the jail. "I'm innocent of any crimes of murder."

Pratt to see daughter graduate


Pratt, 49, had said prior to his release that the first thing he wanted to do upon gaining his freedom was to visit his mother, who is in her 90s. He told reporters he planned to attend his daughter's high school graduation Tuesday night.

Earlier, Dickey had set bail at $25,000 at Cochran's request -- $1,000 for every year of his 25 years-to-life sentence. Pratt spent two years in jail before his 1972 conviction.

Pratt's bail set in court
movie icon (1.4M/37 sec. QuickTime movie)

Hundreds of spectators, including Pratt's wife and children, friends and former Black Panther members, packed the courtroom and lined the halls.

Before bail was set, Pratt, in an orange jumpsuit, told the judge: "I just wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your fair and courageous ruling (in overturning his conviction). I am so happy you have given me the chance (to prove his innocence)."

Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti did not oppose bail, though he has said he will appeal Dickey's decision to overturn the conviction.

In asking for his client to be freed on bail, Cochran said Pratt was a decorated war veteran who had served his country in Vietnam.

'He is a man of peace'

Hanlon Cochran

Cochran and fellow defense attorney Stuart Hanlon spoke of their close relationship with Pratt over the years and their desire to see him free.

"I want to reiterate: He is a man of peace," Hanlon said. "He believes in using this legal system to give him his freedom. He is not a danger to society."

Cochran, who gained fame in 1995 for successfully defending former football star O.J. Simpson on murder charges, pledged personally to give Pratt a job and a place to live. The lawyer represented Pratt in his trial in 1972, when he was convicted, and has fought for his freedom ever since.

The case had become a cause celebre, and Pratt was designated a "prisoner of conscience" by the human rights group Amnesty International.

Last month, Dickey ordered prosecutors either to give Pratt a new trial or drop the case. The conviction was overturned in light of new evidence that the chief witness against him was a police and FBI informant who lied under oath.

Pratt always has maintained his innocence in the murder, contending he was in Oakland at the time of the killing. In addition, a former FBI agent now says Pratt was framed.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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