Hurricane: The story of Rubin Carter – BBC News

Hurricane: The story of Rubin Carter - BBC News thumbnail

By Amy Lofthouse3 April 2019 The BBC’s World Service has been investigating three murders that took place at the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey in 1966. Over the past 15 weeks ‘The Hurricane Tapes’ podcast has been broadcast. Before that, there was simply the Hurricane – Rubin Carter. This is his story.…

By Amy Lofthouse
3 April 2019

The BBC’s World Service has been investigating three murders that took place at the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey in 1966. Over the past 15 weeks‘The Hurricane Tapes’ podcasthas been broadcast.

Before that, there was simply the Hurricane – Rubin Carter. This is his story.

Warning: This article contains swearing and graphic descriptions of violence.

It wasn’t just a shooting…

Prisoner number 45472 was described on his admission sheet as a “hostile, aggressive individual” who, according to the prison psychologist, would be “manipulative and violent to obtain his self-centered desires”.

Carter arrived at Trenton State Prison in 1967 and immediately informed the authorities that he would not wear the prison uniform, he would not work in the prison, he would not eat the prison food and he would not do anything for the guards.

If a hand was placed on him in anger…

Then you are going to have to kill me. Right then, and right here, because if you don’t kill me, I will kill you.”

Carter was angry at the justice system, at the police, at everyone. He would only let his wife and baby daughter visit him once a month, fearing that his wife would be badly affected. Not that he was in a position to receive visitors. Soon after arriving, he was sent to the hole.

The hole. A prison within a prison. It was solitary confinement; a tiny, dark room in the bowels of the prison, containing a concrete slab of a bed and a bucket in place of a toilet.

While he was there, Carter felt unwell; there was something wrong with his eye. The prison doctor diagnosed a detached retina, which Carter put down to an old boxing injury. Other prisoners thought it was the result of a fight in the mess hall.

Carter was in pain and, if it wasn’t treated, it would end the boxing career he intended to resume on his release.

He wanted to have the operation outside prison but the authorities would not let him leave the grounds.

He had the surgery in the prison hospital. When he woke, he could see nothing but darkness out of his right eye. His sight was gone. His days as the ‘Hurricane’ were over.

Fred Hogan was lying in bed in his barracks in Germany, reading clippings sent by his father about his old friend Rubin.

He felt something wasn’t right; his former sparring partner didn’t seem to have been given a fair trial.

When he returned home, he visited both Carter and Artis in prison.

Before long, he was sleeping in a cell to cut down his travelling time. He called himself number 45472-and-a-half – midway between Carter and Artis’ prison numbers.

Hogan began digging. He went to visit Bradley, who brandished a baseball bat as he welcomed him to the house.

He went to the jail where Bello was serving time. Bello mentioned he had been promised a reward for his testimony; Bradley said he had been promised a deal that never materialised.

Bello said he had seen two black guys outside the bar, but he wasn’t sure it was Carter or Artis. Bradley agreed.

Carter, meanwhile, decided to right some wrongs on his own.

His fury at his trial – the fact he was “tried by 12 white folks” rather than “Muhammad Ali, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder… this was the jury of my peers” – channelled into his writing.

Using toilet paper, the only material to hand, Carter painstakingly wrote his autobiography, which was smuggled out by any means possible.

A copy of The Sixteenth Round made its way to Dylan. Dylan finished his tour of England in 1975 and, on his way home, made a detour to the Clinton Correctional Facility, where Carter awaited him.

The men spent several days together, and Dylan played a gig at the prison.

In November that year, he released Hurricane, the story of “the man the authorities came to blame/for something that he never done”.

The song became the heartbeat of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which included that special show inside Carter’s prison.

Ali was brought into the fold by Lipton, an old friend of Carter’s. Carter and Ali did not like each other; Carter found Ali rude, while Ali was wary of Carter’s friendship with rival boxer Sonny Liston. But Lipton knew the importance of having someone as well respected as Ali on board.

In October 1975, Ali beat Joe Frazier in the Thrilla in Manila, the final fight of their iconic trilogy. Two weeks later, after their rivalry played out in front of one billion viewers, Frazier and Ali stood together to speak in Carter’s defence.

As the celebrities kept the case in the public eye, Hogan worked the legal side. He got hold of a tape on which Bello was told he would be looked after should he identify Carter and Artis. These transcripts had not been seen by the defence teams at the original trial.

A retrial was ordered.

Madison Square Garden hosted one of Carter’s biggest victories. Now, in 1975, it was full of people fighting for his freedom.

Carter was there in spirit if not body as Dylan, Stevie Wonder and Isaac Hayes took to the stage to raise money for Carter’s legal fund.

Twenty thousand people intent on getting him out of prison raised about $125,000.

The money was more important than ever – now a retrial had been ordered, Carter would only be able to get out of prison before the proceedings if he could post bail. But there was no sign of the concert money. Carter suspected a thief in the ranks.

At Deer Lake training camp, Muhammad Ali’s phone rang. It was Carter. He needed money. Ali wanted to know how much; Carter said it would be substantial.

“I can’t just get out,” he told Ali. “I gotta get John outta here too. John doesn’t have any money.” Ali agreed to pay.

The next day, Carter and Artis stood on the court steps, blinking into the glare of the camera lights. They were free. For now.

Artis went to visit the Lafayette Bar, to stand in the place where the triple murder he had been accused of had occurred.

Carter went home and soon his wife, Mae Thelma, was pregnant again. But home life was difficult.

The Carters had no money. Daughter Theodora watched as the family had their benefits cut off now her father was free.

Coming out of prison had not solved all of Carter’s problems.

Artis and Carter re-entered the courtroom in December 1976.

Both were wary. Artis had butterflies as he made his way to his seat. Carter was composed but feeling abandoned; he believed the famous friends who had attached themselves to his cause had disappeared once he had been released.

Things quickly went wrong. Bello once again changed his statement to place Carter and Artis at the scene, and the prosecution introduced a devastating racial revenge theory. Before the Lafayette shooting, a black publican – Roy Holloway – was murdered by a white man – Frank Conforti.

Holloway’s step-son was Eddie Rawls, a barman at the club where Carter and Artis had been on the night of the murders.

The prosecution, playing on the ‘angry black man’ stereotype, claimed the murder of three white people in a bar that did not serve black patrons was an attempt to avenge Holloway’s killing. Artis became so disheartened he stopped going to court.

Those in the media who had helped Carter secure his release also turned against him.

Midway through the trial, the front page of the local paper displayed a photograph of Carolyn Kelley. She had been one of Carter’s most prominent black supporters.

Here she was, lying in a hospital bed, claiming Carter had beaten her up in Maryland. The article documented how Carter had attacked the woman who had helped secure his release.

Carter denied the claims to his lawyers, calling it “complete bullshit”, but the damage, and the negative press attention, was done. Carter’s refusal to take the stand would not have helped.

The first time around, the jury deliberated for six hours. This time, it was for nine. The outcome was the same. Life in prison.

His support had quietened, but one 15-year-old boy and a group of Canadians were about to find their voices.

Lesra Martin knew he had graduated with the third highest mark in his class. Yet he also knew he could not read or write.

He also knew things had changed for him. He had gone from living in a New York ghetto to an Ontario mansion with a Canadian commune.

He was in a warehouse on the waterfront when the book caught his eye. A huge, bald black man stared out at him from the cover, his eyes following Martin around the room.

Martin thought the man looked as though he had something to say, and he wanted to hear it.

As he stepped forward, another customer leaned in to the book bin and took the copy of The Sixteenth Round.

Martin watched as the man walked away, Rubin Carter’s face peering out from the crook of his arm. Something told him to follow.

Eventually, the man put the book down and Martin, as quickly as he could, grabbed it.

With the help of his pseudo family, Martin read Carter’s life story. He saw a pain in Carter’s eyes; he recognised the ‘my word is my bond’ mantra that Carter wrote about.

Tentatively, with an unsure hand, he wrote to Carter, to let him know he was still having an influence beyond the prison walls.

Carter, by now back in Trenton State, did not take visitors. He did not write letters. He did not interact with the outside world.

Maybe it was the messy handwriting that made him curious enough to open this letter. It struck him how nice it was. And he wrote back.

A few months later, a scared, frozen young man stood in the middle of what had once been the execution room, staring across at Carter. He told him about the Canadians that he lived with, and slowly, gradually, Carter became part of their family.

Lisa Peters, the head of the commune, was not a woman to be messed with. She did not mind arguing with Carter, or telling him he was wrong. She decided they were going to free Carter.

Working with his lawyers, the tenacious Canadians compiled a habeas corpus petition.

Habeas corpus. The last form of appeal. A way for Carter to protest that his imprisonment was not lawful.

To present a case, a person has to prove they have exhausted all other legal avenues. And Carter was all out of options.

He felt no-one could understand; not even Artis, who had been released on parole in 1981 for good behaviour and his role in stopping a prison riot. It was all or nothing.

This time, there would be no trial. No jury. No court. No-one would rule on guilt or innocence. Just a judge, who would read the 90-page submission that contained Carter’s last shot at freedom, and decide if the defendants received a fair trial.

Lee Sarokin had not heard of Carter, and ignored his children when they urged him to listen to the Dylan song. Instead, he read the petition.

What he read troubled him. Firstly, the racial revenge theory; a prosecutor during the trial had said something to the effect of “this is what black people do”. There was also the Bello problem.

Sarokin noted Bello had been given a lie-detector test, but not told the result directly; instead the prosecution had hinted to him the story he told about Carter and Artis being the gunmen had come through as true on the lie detector.

Sarokin believed Bello had picked up this version not because it was the truth, but because someone had told him it was.

Carter’s lawyers ran to the courthouse on 7 November 1985. They flipped straight to the final pages of Sarokin’s verdict, where the words leapt off the page.

This case was predicated upon an appeal to racism, rather than reason, and concealment, rather than disclosure.”

The conviction was set aside.

The next day, Carter was brought to the courthouse. The room was packed, his supporters watching. There was still a chance Carter could go through another trial, should the prosecutors wish.

On his way in to court, Carter passed his sheepskin coat to another man, who silently handed him his blue jacket. Carter was leaving prison today, either as a free man or in disguise.

The prosecution claimed Carter was unchanged; a violent man who would always be a danger to the public. Sarokin retired to his chambers to reflect.

He came out and looked Carter straight in the eye as he said he would be set free, into the custody of his lawyers. He was not to leave the country in case the prosecution could force a third trial.

Nineteen years after he left the Nite Spot in New Jersey, Carter could go back to his everyday existence.

Thirteen times the state of New Jersey appealed against the decision. Thirteen times they failed.

Carter had what he most wanted – his freedom. The freedom to travel, as he did by moving to Canada two years after his release. The freedom to love, which he did by divorcing Mae Thelma and marrying Peters.

Carter’s relationship with Peters was complex. He loved her, but he didn’t like her; he adored her strength, but he didn’t want to spend any time around her.

For Carter, this was a stifling reminder of the prison he had escaped. He was torn.

Part of him wanted to stay, to repay the debts the Canadians had incurred when they framed their lives around getting him released from prison. But he felt trapped, a trophy horse with no money of his own, a bird in a gilded cage.

One Christmas, Carter had had enough. He packed his Jeep with his possessions and, with $125 in his back pocket, left.

He knocked on Lesra Martin’s university door but he found himself drifting back and forth between there and the commune, unable to settle.

For nine years, Carter was a nomad. But he found purpose working with the wrongfully convicted. This time, Carter was the celebrity, working on the outside to free those inside.

Carter liked that he worked with ordinary people, bound together by a feeling that something was wrong.

He helped Guy Paul Morin, imprisoned for rape and murder in 1984, secure his release after 11 years in prison.

He headed the charity Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted, which fought to have Clarence Chance and Benjamin Powell freed 17 years after they were convicted of murdering a deputy sheriff. But Carter was still angry.

“I still remember when a black man could be lynched for walking down the street with a white woman,” he told a colleague. “Those things just don’t go away.”

Artis and Carter’s lives had been intertwined for 19 years. They became entwined once more when Carter was diagnosed with cancer. Artis went to visit him; he eventually became his primary carer, nursing the man who, as a teenager, he had been told to blame for a vicious triple murder.

Artis watched Carter fight, as he had throughout his career, but as time went on, he began to fade. Artis saw him disappearing, his weight dropping to a little over six stone.

Artis went upstairs one morning, and saw Carter stretch his hands up to the sky, before folding them down across his lap.

On 20 April 2014, at the age of 76, Rubin Carter was gone.

David McCallum was still a child, just 16, when he was sentenced to life in prison in 1985.

Carter, who had been out of prison for just two weeks, might have read about the case in the paper; heard about McCallum and his friend, Willie Stucky, sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a young boy in New York.

Both had confessed, but not before they had been beaten by police officers. Both were told the other had implicated them and, unless they confessed now, things would only get worse, just as Carter and Artis had experienced all those years earlier.

From his prison cell, McCallum wrote 600 letters. Carter read one. And just as Lesra Martin had come to his aid, so he came to McCallum’s.

McCallum did not know what to expect when Carter visited him. What he got was a warm smile, the two sharing their experiences in prison.

It was more than just a visit to Carter, though. He made it a point that, before he helped release someone, he would visit them in prison and look them in the eye.

I was locked up with criminals, with rapists, with murders. I know who belongs and who does not belong in prison.”

From his deathbed, Carter wrote to a newspaper. His single regret in life, he said, was that McCallum was still in prison. McCallum’s freedom was his dying wish.

“If I find a heaven after this life, I’ll be quite surprised,” he wrote. “I lived in hell for the first 49 years of my life and have been in heaven for the past 29.”

Six months after Carter’s death, his wish came true. McCallum was exonerated and lives now as a free man in New York City.

The murders at the Lafayette Bar and Grill remain unsolved.

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