Obit of the Day: “Hurricane”
Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s boxing career ended in 1966, after only two years and 40 matches. And it was not by choice. In October of that year Mr. Carter and an acquaintance, John Artis, were charged with murder.
Ten months later, the two men, who met for the first time on the night the murders were committed, were sentenced to life in prison. They both maintained their innocence throughout the trials and their incarceration.
Mr. Carter spent parts of 19 years in prison for the triple murder of two men and a woman at the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey. It would take until 1985, after two trials, two convictions, and numerous appeals for Carter and Artis to have the charges against them dropped.
Mr. Carter traveled a rocky road long before 1966. He first came to the attention of law enforcement when he was only 8 years old and had stolen clothes from a store. His father, a deacon in the church and strict disciplinarian, turned young Rubin into the police. The boy was sentenced to two years probation.
At 11, he stabbed a man and was sent to a state home for boys. (Mr. Carter claimed his actions were self-defense.) When he was 17 he escaped and fled to Philadelphia. There he enlisted in the Army.
It was while in the military that Mr. Carter first stepped into the ring. He found he had talent, winning 51 of 56 matches and earning the branch’s European light-welterweight championship. A member of the 101st Airborne Division, Mr. Carter was honorably discharged in 1956 - and then served 10 more months in a juvenile correction facility as a penalty for his escape two years prior.
Mr. Carter thought he hit bottom in 1957 when he was found guilty and sentenced to 4 1/2 years for assault and robbery. (He described the crime as “the most despicable thing” he had ever done.) He spent the time behind bars honing his skills as a fighter and upon his release in 1961 immediately became a professional fighter.
Winning 19 of his first 22 bouts, Mr. Carter seemed on a path to a title. In December 1963 he earned a technical knockout against world welterweight champion Emile Griffith, who Carter defeated in just two minutes. The victory earned Mr. Carter a title shot for the middleweight belt against Joey Giardello a year later.
Mr. Carter lost a 15-round unanimous decision and began a slow descent into mediocrity. After the Giardello fight, Mr. Carter lost 6 of his next 12 matches. His final fight was a loss to Argentinian fighter Juan Carlos Rivero on August 6, 1966. Mr. Carter was charged with murder two months later.
The crime which Mr. Carter and Mr. Artis were accused of committing was far from airtight. Beginning almost immediately, the case against the two men seemed to lack evidence. On the night of the murder the lone survivor did not identify Carter or Artis as having been at the scene. Descriptions of the killers provided by witnesses “did not come close” to matching Carter and Artis, either. Police claimed to have found a pistol and shotgun in Mr. Carter’s car that matched the murder weapons used at the scene - but they were only entered into evidence five days after the car was seized by police. Finally the state’s key witnesses were two local felons who admitted to being in the process of committing a burglary near the crime scene.
Mr. Carter began fighting for his innocence almost as soon as he entered prison. He gained national attention after the publication of his 1974 memoir The 16th Round. It not only earned him the support of activists including Bob Dylan, who penned the eight-and-a-half minute epic song “Hurricane” after meeting Mr. Rubin*, but also a former public defender named Fred Hogan. Mr. Hogan investigated Mr. Carter’s claims, which resulted in one witness recanting his testimony.
In 1976 the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. The following year Mr. Carter and Mr. Artis were again prosecuted for the 1966 murders and found guilty once more. This time the prosecution used a theory of “race revenge,” claiming the two men killed the victims in retaliation for the murder of black bartender by a white man earlier in the evening.
Carter and Artis returned to prison.
Finally in 1985 after myriad appeals, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Sarokin overturned the 1977 conviction based on the fact that the the prosecution’s case was “an appeal to racism rather than reason, concealment rather than disclosure.” It took 13 more appeals and four more years until Mr. Carter could leave the United States and move permanently to Canada.
Mr. Carter’s returned to fame with the 1999 release of the film The Hurricane with Denzel Washington portraying the fighter. Mr. Washington earned an Academy Award nomination for the performance. (As with most biopics, Hurricane, was criticized for simplifying and glossing over some of Mr. Carter’s story.)
Mr. Carter would spend the rest of his life in Canada and in 2004 founded Innocence International to help overturn convictions of the wrongly accused.
Rubin Carter died on April 20, 2014 at the age of 76 from prostate cancer. Taking care of him during his illness was his former co-defendant, John Artis.
(Top image caption: Rubin Carter of Paterson, N.J. watches Florentino Fernandez of Cuba fall through the ropes during their 1962 fight, after Fernandez was knocked out in the first round at New Yorsk’s Madison square Garden. Image is copyright of Marty Lederhandler/AP and courtesy of NPR.org
Bottom image caption: Former middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter looks over a copy of the court decision denying his request for a new trial, inside Trenton State Prison on December 11, 1974, after learning that his request for a new trial had been turned down. Copyright UPI Photo)
* Dylan’s song peaked at #33 on the Billboard charts.
Note: Having read comments that accompanied the obituaries for Mr. Carter it’s important to note that while Mr. Carter’s murder conviction was overturned, no one is saying that he led a blame-free life. At the same time you can lead a life of crime and still be railroaded for another. Rubin Carter lived a morally gray life. No one is saying that he is a saint. At the same time he can not be punished for a crime he did not commit simply because he previously committed crimes. I have tried to present an even-handed account of Mr. Carter, as have the other obituaries I’ve read.