In December 1968, a couple playing tennis in Santa Monica, California was robbed at gunpoint by two black men. The woman was shot and killed, the man survived.
Elmer Pratt, a high-ranking member of the Black Panther party, was arrested after Julius Butler, a disgruntled former party member, told police that Pratt had bragged about committing the murders.
Though the survivor of the robbery did not initially identify Pratt, he later identified him in a photo array and at trial.
Another witness identified Pratt in a photo array as one of the men who was in a nearby store on the night of the crime. Neither witness was able to identify Pratt in a lineup.
A third witness saw the two men who committed the robbery drive away in Pratt’s car.
Pratt maintained that he was in Oakland at the time of the murders. A jury convicted Pratt of first-degree murder, armed robbery and felony assault in July 1972, and he was sentenced to 25-years-to-life in prison.
In 1992, Pratt enlisted the help of Centurion Ministries, a New Jersey-based non-profit organization devoted to investigating wrongful convictions. Over the next five years, James McCloskey, founder of Centurion, traveled 120,000 miles investigating the case.
The investigation uncovered evidence that the prosecution had failed to turn over key information to the defense and lied about the FBI’s involvement in the case.
Butler was an FBI informant with four felony convictions and a grudge against Pratt, all of which he had lied about at trial.
Further, the FBI had failed to turn over wiretaps that would have established Pratt’s alibi and claimed to have misplaced the records of those calls.
Based on this evidence, Pratt’s conviction was overturned on May 29, 1997, and he was granted a new trial. On June 10, 1997, Pratt was released.
The prosecution announced in February 1999 that they were dismissing the charges.
- Stephanie Denzel