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."

Date

Tuesday, February 16, 1999 (All day)

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Education Equity

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Author:
ACLU of Southern California

"We are both saddened and outraged about the senseless and cowardly attack on Mr. Truong Van Tran. It is ironic that only a few hours after the judge vindicated the rule of law and allowed Mr. Tran to engage in peaceful political speech, he became the victim of mob violence. Mr. Tran displayed uncommon courage in pursuing his right to express his opinion through the legal system. Those who oppose him by breaking the law obviously do not understand their responsibilities as citizens of a free society and a constitutional democracy."

Date

Wednesday, February 10, 1999 (All day)

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Freedom of Speech and Government Transparency

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Author:
ACLU of Southern California

Today the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California joined the defense of Truong Van Tran, who leases a store in an Orange County shopping center, and was recently ordered by an Orange County Superior Court Judge to remove a picture of Ho Chi Minh and the current flag of the Republic of Vietnam from the walls of his store. The court issued the order on the grounds that the flag and picture, which caused protest in the strongly anti-Communist community in Westminster, is a public nuisance, which is barred by Mr. Tran's lease.

"We believe that the Court's order interprets the meaning of 'public nuisance' far too broadly, and in doing so, violates Mr. Tran's rights under the First Amendment and the 'Liberty of Speech Clause' of the California constitution," said ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg. "The law is clear that controversial speech cannot be silenced on the ground that it is a public nusiance, even if the speech causes hostile reaction to that speech. Any other interpretation of the First Amendment would have a chilling effect on the rights of people to exercise free speech."

The ACLU, along with Mr. Tran's attorney Ronald Talmo, who has worked with the ACLU on numerous cases in the past, intend to file an opposition to the Shopping center's motion for a preliminary injunction this Friday, seeking to allow Mr. Tran to engage in protected speech once again, and requesting that the court deny any further injunctive order against Mr. Tran. A hearing on the preliminary injunction motion is scheduled for February 4, 1999 at the Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana.

"Allowing a vague lease provision such as a 'public nuisance' to be considered a waiver of a fundamental constitutional right, sets a dangerous precedent," said Mr. Tran's attorney Ronald Talmo. It is sadly ironic that so many of Mr. Tran's critics left Vietnam in search of the very freedom of speech that they now seek to stifle.

Date

Thursday, January 28, 1999 (All day)

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Freedom of Speech and Government Transparency

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Author:
ACLU of Southern California

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