Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was one of the most dynamic prizefighters in boxing’s golden era. From 1961 to 1966, the middleweight posted a record of 28 wins, 11 losses and a draw. But all of that came to an abrupt end when Carter was arrested for triple murder in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. Although he asserted his innocence, the African American boxer was wrongfully convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. [includes rush transcript]
In 1974, Carter wrote his autobiography from prison, The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472. Two years later, the New Jersey State Supreme Court overturned his conviction on the grounds that the authorities withheld material evidence from the defense. But he was convicted again in a second trial in 1976. In 1985 that conviction was overturned by a U.S. district court judge, who concluded that the state made an unconstitutional appeal to racial prejudice. In 1988, the Passaic, New Jersey Prosecutor’s Office dropped all charges against Carter.
While in prison, Carter was fiercely outspoken, refusing to subject himself to its regimens. He shunned the prison’s food, insisted on keeping his gold watch, and refused to wear prison-issued clothes. He was not only robbed of his freedom, but of his wife (whom he divorced to lessen her share of his torment) and of his eye (which he lost in a botched prison operation).
Now, a new book, Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter, and a movie called The Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington, have propelled Carter to the center stage once again.
He lives in Toronto, where he is the executive director of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted.
- Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
- James S. Hirsch, author of Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter and a former staff writer for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.
- Leon Friedman, Joseph Kushner Distinguished Professor of Civil Liberties Law at Hofstra Law School and attorney for Rubin Hurricane Carter.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Amazing news today with the Attica decision, and all of the former inmates and the lawyers are gratified, after such a long struggle that most people had forgotten, they finally had gotten a victory.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s right. This is truly a historic moment, coming 25 years after this class action civil suit was filed on behalf of close to 1,300 prisoners over the storming of the western New York Attica Prison by state troopers. Although the money may sound like a lot, $8 million, if divided by all of them — though many, many have died — it would come to something like $6,000 apiece. There’s no question that the suffering they endured during this period was enormous.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And that the lessons of — that Attica should have taught the nation, have not yet been learned, obviously, as the incarceration rate and the conditions in the prisons continue to get worse.
AMY GOODMAN: And the demands of the prisoners are not emphasized very much now, why there was an uprising to begin with, the same kinds of issues that are raised in prisons around this country today, issues of education and healthcare in the prisons, and certainly a story that we continue to cover, not just as a historical footnote.
But speaking about prisons and history and moving into the future, today we are going to speak with Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. Last night, I had a chance to go to the movies in Times Square, just after this new millennium has dawned, and I got a chance to see The Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington, which is about the miraculous story of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, one of the most dynamic prizefighters in boxing’s golden era. From 1961 to 1966, the middleweight posted a record of 28 wins, 11 losses and a draw. But all of that came to an abrupt end when Carter was arrested for triple murder in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. We just heard a part of the story that was immortalized by Bob Dylan in his song “Hurricane.” Well, Carter was wrongfully convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences.
In '74, Rubin Carter wrote his autobiography from prison, which is called The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 [Contender to Number 45472]. Two years later, the New Jersey State Supreme Court overturned his conviction on the grounds that the authorities withheld material evidence from the defense. But he was convicted again in a second trial in 1976. In 1985, that conviction was overturned by a U.S. district court judge, who concluded that the state made an unconstitutional appeal to racial prejudice. And in 1988, the Passaic, New Jersey Prosecutor's Office dropped all charges against Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.
While in prison, Carter was fiercely outspoken, refusing to subject himself to any of the prison regimens. He shunned the prison’s food, insisted on keeping his gold watch, refused to wear prison-issued clothes. He was not only robbed of his freedom, but of his wife, whom he divorced to lessen her share of his torment, and of his eye, which he lost in a botched prison operation.
Well, now a new book is out on the life of “Hurricane” Carter called Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter and a movie called The Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington, which has propelled Rubin Carter once again to center stage.
JUDGE: I’ve heard your statements. I’ll take them under consideration. Now, is there anything else that counsel wishes to add before I make my final ruling?
ATTORNEY: What are you doing?
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] I want to say something. I want to — need to say something.
ATTORNEY: Your honor, my client, Mr. Carter, wishes to address the court.
JUDGE: Request granted.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] Thank you. I was a prizefighter. My job was to take all the hatred and skill that I could muster and send a man to his destruction, and I did that. But Rubin “Hurricane” Carter is no murderer. Twenty years I’ve spent locked up in a cage, considered a danger to society, not treated like a human being, not treated like a person, counted 15 times a day. I served my time in a house of justice, and yet there’s no justice for me. So, I ask you to consider the evidence. Don’t turn away from the truth. Don’t turn away from your conscience. Please, don’t ignore the law. No, embrace that higher principle for which the law was meant to serve: justice. That’s all I ask for, your honor. Justice.
AMY GOODMAN: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, played by Denzel Washington, in the new movie The Hurricane. And we are joined by Rubin Carter on the phone right now. He lives in Toronto, where he’s now executive director of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Rubin Carter.
RUBIN CARTER: Good morning. Good morning. You know, that clip you just played had me choked up here.
AMY GOODMAN: How does it feel to be played by Denzel Washington?
RUBIN CARTER: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: How does it feel?
RUBIN CARTER: Well, I tell you. I never knew — until I saw Denzel up on the big screen there, I never really knew how good-looking I was, you know? No, I think — I am honored to the ultimate to have a consummate performer such as Denzel Washington portraying my life story on the screen. It is miraculous. It is wonderful.
JUAN GONZALEZ: We know also that you have visited the White House recently.
RUBIN CARTER: Yeah.
JUAN GONZALEZ: What did you —- did you have a chance to talk to President Clinton at all? And did you -—
RUBIN CARTER: Well, even that aspect of it is miraculous. See, my life is very magical, very, very magical. And I see magic around me all the time. And even Jim Hirsch’s book, Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter. Why miraculous? Let me put it to you this way. Let me put it to you this way. For 20 years, I spent in prison, reviled, as a triple racist murderer, condemned to history, repudiated by the courts, and left to die amid squander and humiliation in a maximum-security prison, just narrowly escaping the electric chair. And then, just three weeks ago, there I was, invited to the White House, sitting next to the President of the United States, the most influential person on this planet, engaging him in very serious conversation about critical issues in the world, so close to him that I could hear every breath he took. And on Monday, I’ll be addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations. Now, if that’s not miraculous, then I don’t know what is. I’m just floating. I’m flying.
AMY GOODMAN: Rubin Carter, did you talk to the President about the death penalty?
RUBIN CARTER: I certainly did. I certainly did. But the conversation that President Clinton and I had was a conversation between President Clinton and I, and not for public consumption. Actually, I mean, it was very confidential, the things that we were talking about. Therefore, I cannot speak about that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Rubin Carter, how satisfied are you, overall, with the portrayal of the events in your life in the film? I know there’s been somewhat of a controversy. Selwyn Raab, in the New York Times, who was a reporter, who initially, some years back, exposed some of the contradictions in your case, criticized the film somewhat for taking quite a bit of license with some of the facts, in terms of how it was that you were eventually exonerated. But do you think that the factual problems, if there are any, are overcome by the importance of getting the overall message of what your case meant to the American public as a whole?
RUBIN CARTER: Well, I tell you, it’s very unfortunate that anyone would have any kind of objection to what’s being portrayed on the film, because it is certainly accurate. Of course, with trying to tell someone’s life, a 63-year life, in the constraints of a two-hour picture, of course you cannot include everything that is in there, and therefore, the objections that might come from this movie will all come from those who were — who perhaps were involved at one point or another throughout my legal odyssey. So, those objections will all come from very personally involved people, who perhaps may not think that they received enough credit or that they didn’t receive enough screen time, or one thing or another like that. But the overall picture is that the public itself seems to be getting the message.
And the message is one of perseverance. The message is one of overcoming obstacles. The message is one of going the distance, starting something and completing it to its fullest. In 1976, for example, we received a new trial based on recantations from the prosecution’s two key witnesses, criminals themselves, who were given a license to steal in the state of New Jersey, as well as the $10,000 reward, as well as being placed in the Witness Protection Program, as well as given leniency for crimes committed by them which would have landed them in jail for 90 years. And that’s the story that Selwyn Raab reported, and we received a new trial based on that, you see?
But again, that retrial was simply regurgitated — the first trial was simply regurgitated in the second trial and made even more infamous by the fact that, in the first trial, in 1967, there was no motive as to why John Artis and I would commit these horrible crimes. No motive at all. Nobody asked the question or tried to answer the question: Why would two people — one, the top-ranking middleweight contender in the world, and a 19-year-old student who had just graduated from high school and was on his way to college on a scholarship for football and track — why would these two people, in their own hometown, practically in their own neighborhood — and me, I’m the hometown celebrity, I’m bald-headed and bearded and all of that —- why would we do such a thing in our own hometowns, undisguised, or anything? Nobody asked that question. But then -—
AMY GOODMAN: Rubin —
RUBIN CARTER: Just a second, please. But in 1976, at the retrial, the prosecution suddenly conjured up a motive. Out of a grab bag with chips, up pops racial revenge, racial hatred. And the moment that you insert an element like that into a trial, with an all-white jury, with a white judge, a white prosecutor, white victims, white police officers, two petty white criminals, then there is no chance for fairness, because what we’re talking about is tribalism here. We’re talking about white people judging two black men having been accused of killing four white people.
AMY GOODMAN: Rubin Carter, we have to break for stations to identify themselves, but we will come back with you, and also we’ll find out what happened with John Artis, who was sentenced along with you. You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! We’ll continue with “Hurricane” in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: You are listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, The Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman here with Juan Gonzalez.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] From that moment on, I decided to take control of my life. I made up my mind to turn my body into a weapon. I would be a warrior scholar. I boxed. I went to school. I began reading W.E.B Du Bois, Richard Wright.
AMY GOODMAN: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, played by Denzel Washington in the new film The Hurricane_. And we are joined by Rubin Carter on the telephone right now, who runs the Association in Defense of the Wrongfully Convicted, living in Toronto, as he was released about 15 years ago, after being twice convicted of a triple murder that he did not commit. And only after remarkable persistence and not giving up, a judge finally overturned that decision. Judge Sirica [_sic., well known for the —- Nixon? No, not involved with Nixon, but -—
LEON FRIEDMAN: Sarokin, Judge Sarokin.
AMY GOODMAN: Judge Sarokin.
LEON FRIEDMAN: Not John Sirica.
AMY GOODMAN: Sorry, got a little confused there — overturned that decision, and I was being corrected by the lawyer, who would know, Leon Friedman, who we’re going to be talking to in just a minute. But, Rubin Carter, what did happen to the man that you were sentenced with, John Artis, who was driving you in that white car that night when you were picked up by the police?
RUBIN CARTER: Oh, yes, John Artis. John Artis has always been the forgotten man of this duel, because the police did not want John Artis. The police wanted me. And they got me, any way they could get me. They wanted me off the street. They wanted everybody off the street. That was the order sent down from the five-star general, J. Edgar Hoover, in his COINTEL program. Get rid of anybody who can help people get together, unity, enlighten people about self-protection. He said, “Destroy, disrupt, and get rid of those people.” And they were getting rid of those people. They got rid of Malcolm X. They got rid of Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, and a whole lot more. And they got rid of me, just as they got rid of Mumia Abu-Jamal on death row in Pennsylvania, Leonard Peltier down there in Kansas, Odell Barnes, Jr., down there in Texas, on death row in Huntsville, Texas. They were getting rid of all of us, and so they got rid of me.
But John Artis, that youngster, who never had any problems with the law ever before, who was an exemplary youngster and student, his mettle was tested from the very moment that the police stopped us on June 17th, 1966, where he was facing the electric chair for something that he couldn’t possibly have done. And at every second, all he had to do was to say that Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, that loud-mouthed prizefighter, committed this crime, and John Artis was home free. His life would not be in jeopardy, nothing like that. And he would go on with his life as he always did. But John Artis answered all of these sponsors year after year. The governor of the state of New Jersey took John Artis out of prison, brought him home, set him down in front of his mother and father, and said, “If you give us a statement that would incriminate Rubin Carter, we will have — the Governor guarantees that you will be home right here to stay within three or four days.” John Artis’s response to that was, “My mother and father didn’t teach me to lie. They taught me to tell the truth.”
See, John Artis is my hero. He preserved my life. All John had to do was to roll over, give up, give in, give out to these people, and I would be dead. There is no question. If ever there was a death penalty case anywhere in the world for two people to go into a bar and shoot four innocent people for no reason whatsoever — if ever there was a death penalty case, that was it.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Rubin Carter, you mentioned —
RUBIN CARTER: And if John Artis would have turned over on me, I would not be talking to you.
JUAN GONZALEZ: You mentioned Mumia Abu-Jamal, and of course listeners at Democracy Now! know quite a bit about his case. The parallels in terms not only of the marking of a person long before the alleged crime was even committed and the subsequent refusals of the criminal justice system to deal with it are, of course, striking. Have you had any communication? Also, the way performers have been attacked for trying to raise funds or conduct performances on behalf of Mumia in the same way that Bob Dylan and others were criticized back in your time. Have you had any communication with Mumia or —
RUBIN CARTER: I certainly have. I certainly have. As the executive director of the International Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted, based in Canada, Great Britain and here in the United States, I have very close contact with Mumia Abu-Jamal. And all wrongful conviction cases, like Mumia’s, like Leonard Peltier, like Odell Barnes in Texas, and like my own, and like every case that we ever approach of wrongful convictions, there is always the same elements involved. There’s always jailhouse stool pigeons who are buying themselves’ way out of jail.
There are always police officers, who are looking for success — who are looking for promotions, who hone in on an individual, a target, and once they begin to target that person, then that person slowly begins to be marginalized in society. The media jumps on it and begin to isolate that individual. And then when the police finally come down on that individual, the public has been primed and ready to say, “OK, must have been something, because it was in the papers all the time. He must have done something.” You see what I mean? So it’s very simple for the powers to be to manipulate, to hone out, to target someone, and then to slowly proceed to criminalize that person, even though that person may not be a criminal at all. They will criminalize them, and then the society as a whole says, “Well, if he’s in prison, he must have done something, because if he didn’t do it, he wouldn’t be in prison.” I mean, but that’s the logical thinking of people.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Rubin, we’re going to speak with your lawyer and the writer who wrote the new book on you, Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter, in a minute.
RUBIN CARTER: Amy? Amy?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes.
RUBIN CARTER: Just a second please. You are speaking, right now, to Professor Leon Friedman, one of the foremost constitutional experts in the world, and you are also speaking to Jim Hirsch, a very dignified, very righteous man, who has researched my life to a hilt and walked through every door that he could find in my life, opened it, and wrote about what he found there. And he is an amazing writer. So he’s the historian of my life. Thank you. That’s what I wanted to say.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, before we go to them, I just wanted to wrap up by asking you, what kept you going for the almost two decades that you were in prison?
RUBIN CARTER: Well, Amy, the first decade, I devoted myself to studying the law, and my law has been — has been — what would I say? My ability with the law has been demonstrated through every court in the state of New Jersey, as well as in the country, all the way up to the United States Supreme Court. But when the law did not help me and could not help me — in fact, put me back in prison — I understood that it wasn’t the law that was going to do me any good. So I threw away all my law books, and I said, OK, I’m going to turn this prison into an unnatural laboratory for the human spirit. I’m going to find something that’s above the law, to take care of the law. And that’s what I began to do.
It’s only that, only that, which was strong enough to allow me to remain above the level of a prison system, so that when I was finally released, I would not come out of that prison as a raving maniac. You know what I mean? It is that little, teeny something. I don’t know what you call it. I don’t know what it is. And it’s certainly not me. You see, all credit must go to this creator, all credit. And all the mistakes are mine. But it was only that which allowed me to survive and allowed my innocence to remain alive and allowed me to fight for my freedom, fight for my vindication. And we did, and we won. That’s the miracle. All of — anything else that surrounds this is really irrelevant. The miracle is that ordinary people, just ordinary people, joining together for a common cause, for a common aim, one direction, one mind, one thought, one understanding, can create, can do extraordinary things. That’s what this movie is. That’s what my life has been about. And that’s what prison taught me.
AMY GOODMAN: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, joining us on the telephone today.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] Could really use a shower.
MR. WILLIAMS: You smell awful, Mr. Carter. Why don’t you take a shower? Get you a decent cell with a bed and some food. You’ll feel a lot better.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] At what price do I take the shower?
MR. WILLIAMS: What do you mean?
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] I mean, what do I put on after I take this shower that’s going to make me feel so good?
MR. WILLIAMS: What everyone else puts on. That’s the rules.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] Yeah, well, you can just take me on back down in the hole.
MR. WILLIAMS: You could die down there.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] And I could die up here, too.
MR. WILLIAMS: Look, what if I got you a pair of pajamas from the prison hospital? As far as I’m concerned, you’d be wearing prison-issued clothing.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] You got stripes?
MR. WILLIAMS: No stripes.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] How about numbers?
MR. WILLIAMS: No numbers.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] No color on it?
MR. WILLIAMS: They’re white.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] OK, I could live with those.
MR. WILLIAMS: Thank you, Mr. Carter.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] You’re welcome, Mr. Williams.
MR. WILLIAMS: Shower’s all yours.
AMY GOODMAN: Denzel Washington playing Rubin Carter in the new movie The Hurricane. There’s also a new book out by that name, Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter, which is written by James Hirsch, and Jim Hirsch is a former staff writer for the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. We’re also joined by Leon Friedman, who is one of the longtime attorneys for Rubin Carter and the Joseph Kushner Distinguished Professor of Civil Liberties Law at Hofstra Law School.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
LEON FRIEDMAN: Thank you.
JAMES HIRSCH: Thank you.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Leon Friedman, I’d like to start — ask, how did you get involved in the case? What made you, and what made you persevere over so many years with the belief that Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was innocent?
LEON FRIEDMAN: Well, I got involved after the second conviction. Myron Beldock and Lewis Steel were the trial lawyers on the second conviction, and after it was over, they thought they needed a third eye or voice on all of this, and they were very exhausted by the whole thing. So they asked me come in and prepare the briefs and argue the appeals. And at that point, I had not met Rubin. I think the first time I met Rubin was in 1981 at a court hearing, but I had spoke to him on the phone.
And Rubin is a great athlete, and like every great athlete — and you just heard it now — there’s an intensity to him. And he gives everything, gives up everything. And it’s very catching. You know, the whole idea is here’s somebody who really is straining every muscle to fight against the system, to fight against the injustice.
I mean, there’s no doubt in our mind, and the minute you look at the facts, it was simply impossible to conclude, as Rubin says, that he would have done that. I mean, you know, among the other facts, there were three people in this car when it was first stopped. They were moving towards the Lafayette Bar, not away from the Lafayette Bar. The clothes that they were wearing didn’t match the clothes that the perpetrators. The first eyewitness testimony was way off. They were both described as two tall, light-skinned Negroes, and the one thing Rubin is not is a tall, light-skinned Negro at the time. And he had a bald head. I mean, it was absolutely impossible, if you looked at the facts, to conclude it. But it was his intensity. And I will say that once the Canadians came into it, they — this is part of the story, of the movie, and the book —- their devotion. So, you have Rubin -—
AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by the Canadians.
LEON FRIEDMAN: Well, the movie and Jim Hirsch’s book tells the story of how a group of Canadians, living together in Canada, came to Brooklyn to test some energy-saving device. They met a young black teenager, Lesra Martin, who at that point could not read. He was illiterate. And they took a liking to him, and they thought that he really deserves an education, and they took him to Canada, and they gave him some books to read. And one of the books that he read, that he bought at a second-hand library sale, was The Sixteenth Round by Rubin Carter. He became devoted to the book and devoted to Rubin’s plight, and he wrote to Rubin, visited him in jail, and then brought his Canadian guardians down to New Jersey. And they came down for three years, four years, from '81 to ’85, and they just did everything. They devoted themselves to Rubin's case. So, there was an intensity, a devotion, a focusing of energy on this case that was just catching. And the lawyers, we just did the best job of our careers. We’re very proud of what we did in this case. But it was Rubin’s spirit and the spirit of the Canadians that really drove the whole case.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, when we come back, we’ll find out what ultimately turned the judicial system in Rubin Carter’s favor, in justice’s favor, and we’ll speak with the man who also got involved with Rubin, the writer of his latest book, called Hurricane. You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, and we’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman here with Juan Gonzalez.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] Hate put me in prison. Love’s gonna bust me out.
LESRA MARTIN: [played by Vicellous Reon Shannon] Just in case love doesn’t, I’m going to bust you out of here.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] Yeah, you already have, Les.
AMY GOODMAN: And that is Denzel Washington playing Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, speaking, actually just before the judge’s decision, to Lesra Martin — Lesra Martin, the young man who took on the case. James Hirsch, you wrote the book Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter and wrote extensively about Lesra, who himself now is an attorney, is that right?
JAMES HIRSCH: Yes, he’s actually a prosecutor in western Canada, which is ironic, of course, because the prosecutors were the adversaries in Rubin’s life. But Lesra’s position is that a good prosecutor can prevent a wrongful conviction by not going after the wrong person to begin with.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And James Hirsch, for those folks who are listening who are not familiar with the essential facts of the case, could you give us a quick summary of how Carter was originally arrested and what the case — how it resounded at that time, and the context of the arrest?
JAMES HIRSCH: Well, of course, the murders occurred in 1966, when passions were quite high in the United States over the civil rights movement and racial tensions, and that really provided the backdrop of this case, because the murders occurred in Paterson, in which two black men walked into a bar and shot four people, killing three, including a woman. And there were enormous political pressures at the time, that they had to find the killers. There was a murder earlier that night of a black person by a white person, and the second shooting was seen as retaliation for the first shooting. So, you had this specter —
JUAN GONZALEZ: That’s because all the victims were white?
JAMES HIRSCH: Yes, in the second shooting, all the victims were white. So, you had this specter of black mob vigilantism, and that, of course, was a very haunting specter to the white establishment of Paterson, New Jersey. So that began Paterson’s search for the killer, and it took them to the most feared man in Paterson, and that was Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. He had a reputation in Paterson. He was a former convict at the time. He was very flamboyant. He was very outspoken, because of his whole “Hurricane” persona. He became the ruthless face of black militancy. So, the facts of the case were sort of long and contorted, but I think the important part was that the perception was that he looked like a killer, he sounded like a killer, so he probably was a killer. And Rubin’s problem has been that, in the court of public opinion, he always faced, not so much the weight of the evidence, but the burden of perception.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, he was convicted twice —
JAMES HIRSCH: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: — of a triple murder.
JAMES HIRSCH: Right. The first conviction occurred in 1967. That conviction was overturned by the State Supreme Court on the grounds that prosecutors withheld material evidence. Rubin was retried, reconvicted for the same crime, and then that conviction was also overturned by a federal judge, who also concluded that the state had withheld evidence and appealed to racial prejudice.
AMY GOODMAN: Then, Leon Friedman, describe your change strategy and what ultimately led you to the judge, Sarokin, who ultimately overturned this decision. What was the approach?
LEON FRIEDMAN: Well, it wasn’t a change strategy. In other words, the racial revenge motive was in the second trial, and Lewis Steel strenuously objected to it, was held in contempt for objecting to it, because there was no predicate for racial revenge. So that was always one of the arguments we had, from day one.
What was different was the chief eyewitness, this burglar named Bello, had told various versions of where he was when the crime occurred. He was given a lie detector test, and the lie detector test said one thing, but the test ended up indicating the opposite. And what happened was that the lie detector expert told the authorities exactly what the lie detector meant, but the report was jumbled, and we still don’t know why it ended up that way. But Myron Beldock, who was his trial lawyer, called up the lie detector expert after the trial and said, “What were the results of this test?” And the lie detector expert told him, which was the opposite of what his report had done. Again, this is very complicated. But that was — so what they did the second time was exactly what they did the first time, which was withhold evidence.
Now, what happened was, we went through the New Jersey state system, and at that time, we had — we could then go into the federal court on what’s called a writ of habeas corpus and ask a federal judge to examine any constitutional errors. And at the time — and this is quite important and very topical — we were able to do that. A federal judge could take a fresh look at the trial and decide whether it was constitutional or not. Since that time, Congress passed a law in 1996, signed by President Clinton — there were a whole bunch of ironies on all of this — and now the United States Supreme Court is about to hand down a case, very important case, on whether federal judges must give very heavy deference to whatever the state courts do. So, I keep saying, and I think it’s true, that if Rubin were coming up today, if his case came up today, he probably would still be in jail.
AMY GOODMAN: And is it true, the risk that Rubin Carter took and that you took in taking this to a federal judge, because you had new evidence, and if he didn’t accept this, the evidence would have to be thrown out and could never be considered by a court again?
LEON FRIEDMAN: Well, that’s true. There was a fight among the lawyers about — we found the new evidence, the so-called material in the Caruso file, but in order to present it to a federal judge, we had to present it through all levels of the state court system, and that would have taken another two years. And I kept saying, “Let’s go into federal court now.” And eventually Rubin sided with me. And the consequence of doing that is that all this new evidence would simply be wiped out for all purposes.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s hear the movie version of — Hurricane — the judge’s decision.
COURT MARSHALL: All rise. This Federal District Court of New Jersey is now in session, Judge Sarokin presiding.
JUDGE SAROKIN: [played by Rod Steiger] This court does not arrive at its conclusion lightly. On one hand, Rubin Carter has submitted a document alleging racial prejudice, coercion of testimony, and withholding of evidence. On the other hand, Mr. Carter was tried twice by two different juries, and those convictions were subsequently upheld by the New Jersey State Supreme Court.
UNIDENTIFIED: He’s going to rule against us. Rubin is going to lose.
JUDGE SAROKIN: [played by Rod Steiger] However, the extensive record clearly demonstrates to this court that Rubin Carter’s conviction was predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure. To permit convictions to stand, which have as their sole foundation appeals to racial prejudice, is to commit a violation of the Constitution, as heinous as the crimes to which the defendants were tried and convicted. I hereby order Rubin Carter released from prison, henceforth, from this day forward.
AMY GOODMAN: And that is Rod Steiger, playing U.S. District Court Judge H. Lee Sarokin, and that was the decision in 1985, the conviction of “Hurricane” Carter overturned. What were your thoughts at that moment, Leon Friedman?
LEON FRIEDMAN: Well, we had good feelings from the oral argument on, so everybody was very positive about it. Rubin, by the way — Jim Hirsch tells the story very well — was so confident that he started giving away all of his possessions. He gave away his books. He gave away everything that made life bearable. He kept giving it away as the time came. And on the very last day, he was down to, what, the clothes that he wore?
JAMES HIRSCH: That’s it. The clothes on his back.
LEON FRIEDMAN: The clothes on his back. And Jim says in his book, “When a prisoner does that, there are only two things that are possible.” Well, you describe it.
JAMES HIRSCH: Right. It shows that the prisoner is either going to be going home, or that the prisoner is going to commit suicide, or that the prisoner is crazy. And Rubin, of course, was the first one.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Jim Hirsch, I’d like to ask you to talk a little bit about the relationship between art and reality, between the film and the reality of Rubin Carter’s life. You’ve — Carter has said himself that you are the consummate biographer of him. You’ve looked into every aspect of his life. And, of course, Denzel Washington is already getting rave reviews, and he’s really one of the great actors of our time. What is your sense of how the film captures the story of “Hurricane” Carter and where it may actually, if it does at all, do any disservice to the reality or the facts?
JAMES HIRSCH: Well, first of all, I didn’t research and write the book to sort of be a critic of the film. All I can say is that I think people should see the film. It’s a very powerful vehicle to tell Rubin’s story. And anything that sheds light on his life or stimulates discussion about his experiences is good, and the film does that. My advantage as a writer is that I could tell Rubin’s story in much more depth and detail and nuance than the filmmakers can. As Rubin has now said many times, the filmmakers were simply constrained by the limits of their medium. They couldn’t tell the story in full. They had to consolidate and make certain changes, and the filmmakers can defend their film, but I’m not going to criticize them.
AMY GOODMAN: Rubin Carter had written his own autobiography, The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472, and that was the book that young Lesra Martin read and got him interested in his case. But it was the book he wrote when he was still in prison.
JAMES HIRSCH: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: It must have been a little frightening for you to take on this case and have Carter as your number one critic. What was that like when he read the manuscript?
JAMES HIRSCH: You know, Rubin does not trust many people. By instinct, he keeps everyone at arm’s length. He’s been betrayed many times in his life. And I realized that very early on, that it was going to take a long time to build up any trust with Rubin and develop a rapport and get him to open up about his life. In the book, I chronicle his triumphs as well as his mistakes, and I depict a pretty gritty story of Rubin. So, when I sent him the manuscript, I was nervous about what he was going to say. He didn’t have editorial control of the book, but obviously, it was important to me that he thought that I captured his life, both the facts and the spirit of his story, and so I sent him the book.
And Rubin likes to call people very late at night, and the phone rings at 1:00 a.m. one morning. I roll out of bed, and I pick up the phone, and it’s Rubin. And he says, “Jim, I just want you to know that I’m getting ready to start your book.” And I said, “Well, that’s fine, Rubin. I hope you enjoy it, and good night.” So I go back to bed, and a half-hour later, the phone rings again. I roll out of bed, and it’s Rubin. And he’s in a state of high excitement, and he says, “Jim, I just want you to know, I’ve read the first chapter, and I think it’s wonderful. You’re very clever. I see where you’re going with the story.” And he goes on in this vein. And finally, I said, “You know, Rubin, I’m glad you liked it, but you don’t have to call me after each chapter.”
Rubin reads the manuscript three times, and to his credit, he did not ask for a single change. And when he said to me, “Jim, this book is a road map to enlightenment,” I knew that I had realized a very important goal for myself, in that Rubin accepted the book.
AMY GOODMAN: James Hirsch, author of Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter. Very briefly, what did you think were some of the mistakes?
JAMES HIRSCH: Well, you know, Rubin makes no bones about the fact that when he — particularly, when he was a prizefighter in the 1960s, he caroused a lot. He was a womanizer. He had a reputation, not undeserved, as a bully. He often made intemperate remarks to the press about racism in America. I mean, it’s one thing to be a critic of the system, but Rubin went beyond that and made some ill-advised remarks that simply, you know, seemed to make him more angry and more radical than he really was. He’s not easy to get close to, and over the years, Rubin has turned his back on a lot of people who have tried to help him, just because, you know, Rubin had to fight for his freedom. And if you could help him win his freedom, he would embrace you, but once you couldn’t help him, he would turn his back.
AMY GOODMAN: But —
JAMES HIRSCH: And that — sorry, I describe all of that.
AMY GOODMAN: He also said that he had to close down that hope, or he couldn’t — he couldn’t live anymore. He describes — or at least that’s the movie version, having been to the movie last night. At the end, Leon Friedman, you’ve won this case, but now almost two million people are in prison in this country. And as you pointed out, under the current system, it may well be that if Rubin Carter were in prison today, you couldn’t have gotten him out using the same strategy that you used. What are your final thoughts?
LEON FRIEDMAN: Well, my final thought is that the death penalty has poisoned not only politics in the United States, because everybody runs on the death penalty, but it’s poisoned the legal system, so that we’re making legal changes in habeas corpus and the way in which cases are presented that affect everything. There’s such an irrational drive to complete the death penalty, to impose it, that anything in the way of the fastest possible execution is really perverting the whole system. So, Rubin is very conscious of this, and he’s out there fighting the death penalty. And that really is one of the most poisonous parts of the system today.
RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] Hate put me in prison. Love’s gonna bust me out.
AMY GOODMAN: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. That does it for today’s program. Our guests have been Rubin Carter himself, as well as James Hirsch, his biographer. The book is called Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter. It’s published by Houghton Mifflin. And we’ve been joined by one of the longtime attorneys of Rubin Carter, Leon Friedman, a professor of civil liberties law at Hofstra Law School in New York.
By the way, this latest news, and that is, INS officials say the father of six-year-old Cuban Elian Gonzalez has a right to custody of the boy.