In the summer of 1976, I walked the mean streets of Paterson, New Jersey, with Rubin ''Hurricane'' Carter and encountered the raw, bloodshot hate-gaze from the white folks who passed us by.
Carter was instantly recognisable: he was as bald and black and muscly as the Michelin man. ''What chance do you give me?'' he asked this young lawyer, shrugging his boxer’s shoulders.
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Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter dies at 76
American boxer Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, who was wrongfully convicted for murder, has died aged 76 from complications with prostate cancer.
''You can see my verdict in their eyes. In America, nothing has really changed.''
On the political surface, it certainly had. In 1966, when Carter, a top professional boxer, was first convicted by an all-white jury for slaying three of their kind in a local bar, the governor of Georgia was fighting desegregation with a pick-axe.
Now his successor, Jimmy Carter, was on the way to the US Presidency, preaching racial harmony and quoting Bob Dylan in his campaign ads. Rubin’s conviction, for an apparently motiveless triple murder, was based on palpably inadequate evidence and came at a time when he was a contender for the world middleweight title.
Yet Carter was reconvicted on even weaker evidence at his retrial in 1976 and returned to prison. Not until 1985 was this wrongful reconviction overturned.
His story inspired one of Dylan’s best protest songs and Norman Jewison’s fine movie, in which he was played by Denzel Washington. As a warning against convicting – and executing – the innocent as a result of prosecutors who play the race card and hide exculpatory evidence the story of ''the Hurricane'' has a significance that will outlive his death.
It all began with the riots in Watts and Harlem in the early sixties, which left 13 black children killed by police bullets. Carter, who until then had been marching non-violently with Martin Luther King, became a black Muslim and started to talk to the press about fighting back. That made him a public enemy in his home town of Paterson where he had been arrested at the age of 11 for stabbing a man he said had indecently assaulted him. He was put away in a reformatory for seven years and was not forgiven, even as he began winning boxing titles.
The police officer involved in arresting him as a child – Vincent DeSimone – happened to be on duty 18 years later, on the night where two black gunmen walked into the Lafayette Bar and Grill and opened fire, killing three customers before escaping in what some witnesses said was a white Chevrolet.
After a car of this make had eluded a police chase, Rubin Carter and a young friend, John Artis, were pulled over in Carter’s white Dodge. DeSimone ordered the two brought back to the bar, but no witnesses could identify them as the gunmen. Alfred Bello and Arthur Bradley, two professional burglars who had seen the gunmen while themselves out to rob the bar, gave descriptions which were nothing like Carter or Artis.
But DeSimone was as implacable as Inspector Javert, from Les Miserables. He dragged the suspects to the hospital bedside of a critically injured survivor who denied that these were the men who had just shot him. So Carter and Artis were released: the only evidence against them being a lead-plated .32 Smith and Wesson bullet a policeman claimed to have found in the back of Carter’s car. It could have been fired from the murder weapon but the bullets that riddled the Lafayette victims were all plated with copper. Lead-plated .32 shells were not in common use, except in the Paterson police force where they were regular issue.
Several months later, DeSimone persuaded Bello and Bradley to change their minds and identify Carter and Artis as the gunmen. In return for changing their story, the two burglars were offered a host of inducements – early parole from previous sentences, a $US12,000 reward and a blind eye towards the crimes they committed on the night (Bello had robbed the Lafayette cash register while the victims lay dying). These deals were not disclosed to the defence. The prosecution even suppressed their initial description of the gunmen as “thinly built, both 5’11” in height” (1.8 metres). The Hurricane was an unmistakably stocky 5’7” (1.7 metres).
The prosecution relied on Bello and Bradley and unspoken racial prejudice. On the jury table, the blood-stained shirt, trousers, socks and shoes of each victim was carefully laid out: by the shirt collar was set a wedding photo and beneath the shoes was placed a picture of the bullet-ridden body on the mortuary slab.
The prosecutor called for the defendants to be sent to the electric chair.
I met Rubin Carter during his release on bail in 1976. He had, quite literally, written his way out of life imprisonment with a memoir, The 16th Round, which revived interest in his case. Selwyn Raab, of the New York Times, cracked Bello and Bradley who confessed to perjury. Bob Dylan, who years before had so movingly mourned the lonesome death of Hattie Carroll, now set the story of “the Hurricane” to a driving, angry beat. Muhammud Ali led protest marches. And an appeal court ordered a retrial.
But this ''free Hurricane Carter'' campaign outraged the local police (DeSimone by now was its chief), as well as the judges and politicians of New Jersey. It became a matter of honour to secure Carter’s reconviction. The state devoted massive resources to the prosecution: I counted no less than 49 of their lawyers and investigators, ranged against a handful of Carter defenders working for the most part without fee. The state had the money and now it invented a motive by claiming the Lafayette attack was a Black Power revenge killing.
The trial judge permitted this preposterous change of tack. At the pre-trail hearings I attended, he seemed to loathe the out-of-town defence lawyers and after he allowed the prosecution to play the race card the feeling was mutual. ''What sort of lousy judge would make a ruling like that?'' protested the “movement” lawyer Lenny Weinglass, deploying a style of advocacy I made a mental note to avoid when back at the Old Bailey.
Outside court, I observed the downside of press freedom, American style. The local press were determined to prejudice the trial: in its lead-up, I counted 17 editorials and 320 front-page articles in local papers, all hostile to Carter. Half the articles contained inflammatory descriptions, referring to him as a ''murderer'', ''assassin'', ''criminal'' and ''killer of white people''.
The result was predictable. The prosecutor relied on the new ''Black Power'' reprisal theory and on attacking ''Madison Avenue hucksters''.
The verdict, once again, was guilty.
So, ''the Hurricane'' hunkered down for another life term. His release in 1985 was due to a dogged defence lawyer, Myron Beldock, who found the ''smoking gun'' evidence of prosecutorial misconduct. The judge quashed the conviction on the ground of that misconduct and ''the prosecutor’s appeal to racism rather than reason''.
The real hero of the story was John Artis, who had fatefully offered to drive Carter home. In 1966, he was 19, with an exemplary record and a good career ahead of him. Instead, he wasted the next 20 years in prison. From the outset the prosecution had offered him plea bargains and freedom deals if only he would implicate Carter. His refusal to do so, especially when threatened with the electric chair, was truly courageous.
''The Hurricane'' devoted the rest of his life to projects that secured the release of innocent prisoners and campaigned powerfully – he was the living embodiment of the argument – against the death penalty. He died over Easter, in the presence of John Artis, the friend who lost two decades of his own life as punishment for refusing to help the New Jersey police to send Rubin to the electric chair.
Geoffrey Robertson QC is author of “The Justice Game”, published by Vintage.