Interview with Jack Olsen, author of

Last Man Standing:
The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt.

Interviewer: Ben Bruton.


Where would Geronimo Pratt be today if the death penalty hadn't been banned for a few years in the early 1970s?

Long dead. He was convicted of one of the most brutal and cowardly murders in American history.

Was he innocent?

From the first day.

What kind of person was he?

A war hero, a UCLA student, a loving son and brother.

How was such a man found guilty of murder?

He was railroaded by the Los Angeles Police Department and the FBI.

At whose direction?

J. Edgar Hoover.

The FBI Director ordered his agents to frame an innocent man?

Yes. His exact orders were: "Neutralize Geronimo Pratt." His agents did the rest.

How much time did Pratt serve?

Just under 27 years, the first eight in solitary confinement.

Why solitary?

The LA District Attorney's office, J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI combined to convince prison officials that Pratt was the Hannibal Lecter of his era -- a murderous thug who would kill guards by stabbing them in the eyes with sharpened pencils, hold their children hostage, lead mass escapes, engineer the Patty Hearst kidnapping, and go on a nationwide crime spree if he were ever paroled.

Was any of this true?

Not one word. When he was finally let out of "the hole," Pratt became one of San Quentin's most valuable residents -- teaching, organizing self-help training groups, counseling fellow Vietnam veterans, raising money for charities, helping to keep order among rival ethnic groups.

What was Johnnie Cochran's role in the case?

He represented Pratt at the original trial.

Cochran lost?

Yes, at trial and on appeal. Two of his office colleagues were FBI informants. His phone calls were tapped. Judges were corrupted, perjury suborned. A cop-turned-hairdresser lied on the witness stand. The verdict was ordained before Cochran and Pratt stepped into the courtroom.

What went wrong in the appeals process?

Appellate judges up to the California Supreme Court took the easy way out, stalling proceedings, conferring privately with FBI agents, blaming the original jury, passing the buck. They finally succeeded in shifting the case to a conservative judge in the state's most conservative county, where something surprising happened.

Have the FBI and LAPD ever acknowledged responsibility?

Pratt recently won a $4.5 million civil settlement. The LAPD paid $2.75 million, the FBI $1.75 million. It was one of the few times in its history that the FBI paid for its unlawful actions in cold cash.

How does Cochran rate this case in his career?

"By far the toughest and most significant." All through the O. J. Simpson trial, he kept buttonholing reporters and telling them that they were missing a much more important case.

Why was Pratt finally freed?

Because dozens of indefatigable members of the legal community, from office boys to paralegals to Johnnie Cochran and the great San Francisco lawyer Stuart Hanlon, waged one of the boldest, longest and most courageous legal wars in the history of jurisprudence. That, essentially, is what this book is about.

Cochran was involved at the end?

At the beginning and the end -- as a loser the first time, as a winner after 25 years of hard work and dedication by himself, Stuart Hanlon, the Rev. James McCloskey of Centurion Ministries, civil rights lawyers Leonard Weinglass, Robert Bloom and a dozen others. And, of course, Geronimo Pratt acting on his own behalf behind bars.

Where's Pratt now?

Back in the Louisiana bayou country, doing what he was doing when he was railroaded.

What was that?

Helping his people. Setting up social programs for the poor. Speaking out.

Wasn't that what landed him in prison the first time?

Exactly.

Isn't he afraid that history will repeat?

He says he's never had a choice.