Olsen outlasts the 'true crime' genre
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:14 PM
"Don't read Jack Olsen's new book.Don't read it, that is, unless you want to be seized by the soul's lapels from the first sentence and have one of your most sacred illusions ripped free - the illusion that government agencies work only to protect honest, hardworking Americans.Instead, Olsen, through the eyes of three men who together lived and overcame a 27-year nightmare, shows that the once-unimpeachable Federal Bureau of Investigation - conspired with local law enforcement agencies to put an innocent man behind bars simply because its leaders disliked his perceived political bent.The Bainbridge Island author demonstrates beyond doubt through reams of documentation in his latest crime-journalism epic, Last Man Standing: The Tragedy and Triumph of Geronimo Pratt, that your worst nightmares about your protectors - once the stuff of silly thriller movies and lurid spy novels - has real-life roots.The FBI framed a man and sat back chortling for 27 years, Olsen marveled. I was more shocked than anybody as the proof came tumbling out of their own files - absolutely flabbergasted. Welcome to the American system of justice.Last Man Standing is the tale of Pratt, who moved from humble roots in a poverty-wracked Louisiana backwater to a leadership role in the radical Black Panther Party in Los Angeles by the age of 22. Other Panther leaders feared him, but it was the FBI, through the reactionary J. Edgar Hoover, who made him the focus of an intense campaign of harassment - allegedly in the best interests of national security.The irony is that Pratt, a quiet, easygoing and spiritually rooted fellow who had survived a tour of duty in Vietnam emotionally untouched, had done nothing to earn his fearsome reputation - no strong-arm tactics, no acts of radical violence, no fiery speeches from ghetto pulpits.That meant that the FBI had to manufacture evidence to support the charge that Pratt murdered a Santa Monica woman in 1970, over ample proof to the contrary and the anguished defense of young attorney Johnnie Cochran Jr. Yes, that Johnnie Cochran.Convicted after a staggering series of tampered witnesses, secret meetings with jurists and falsified evidence - all of which would later be revealed in detail in files from the FBI's own COINTELPRO anti-subversive campaign - Pratt's larger-than-death reputation earned him a spot in San Quentin Prison's infamous hole for more than eight years.Cochran, who later went on to fame as the attorney who won a murder-charge acquittal for O.J. Simpson, never let go of Pratt's case, and finally helped a young Jewish attorney named Stuart Hanlon take the reins and begin a near-quarter-century campaign against stubborn courts and a scheming government to win Pratt's release in 1997.One by one, Hanlon's team turned the lies of local and national law-and-justice figures against them, and, combined with a calmer race-relations climate that strengthened as the years slipped past, won Pratt an overturned conviction in 1997.It was a 27-year legal fight that to me, is unequaled in the annals of legal jurisprudence, said Olsen, who invested three years writing and researching the intertwined tale of the three men.That's saying a lot, since Last Man Standing is just the latest story in Olsen's 55-year journalism career - the 40 spent writing books, more than 25 of which fall in the crime-writing genre. However, it's earning some of the most laudatory plaudits the author has ever received - even a glowing tribute from Olsen's once-mortal nemesis, the Seattle Times.Olsen said that in a sense, he doesn't deserve them.My specialty is in writing the facts, he said. My writing philosophy is that is the reader sits back and says, 'That Jack Olsen sure can write,' then I have failed the reader. The story is the thing ... and this is a great story.That belief has pitted Olsen in a now-famous feud with so-called true-crime authors, who nominally cover the same kinds of stories as Olsen but pack their blood-soaked prose with dramatized re-enactments of events and conversations never personally witnessed or recorded.Book-length crime reporting in the U.S. is largely trash, Olsen said. It's hyperbole, distortion and vigorous self-promotion.It's also put him at odds with his own publisher, Doubleday, who delayed the book's publication by a year while wrangling with Olsen over the book's content and editing out of its fear that the story of injustice against a black man wasn't salacious enough to sell. As a result, Doubleday dropped Olsen from his own book tour - meaning that for a splashy New York premiere for the book next week featuring Pratt, Cochran and Hanlon, the author had to pay his own expenses.There won't be that many struggles left, however. Olsen has announced that his next crime-journalism book, about Keith Jespersen, Oregon's Happy Face Killer, will be his last in that genre.That's partly because of his belief that the best days of true crime writing have disappeared, as have many of its greatest practitioners. It's also because the 25-year island resident wants to get cracking on his last, and perhaps by far his most ambitious project.It's a trilogy he tentatively calls Reporter - a book each about the people he's met, the events he's witnessed and the lessons he's learned as a newspaper scribe, a magazine writer and a book author.I am not even hinting that anything about me is worth a trilogy, let alone book, Olsen said. I have three books to write because I have run into so many interesting situations and so many interesting people - I could almost write a book on my relationship with the Kennedys, one with things that have never been said before.* * * * *Author Jack Olsen reads from Last Man Standing: The Tragedy And Triumph of Geronimo Pratt, at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 12 at Eagle Harbor Books. "