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Rubin “Hurricane” Carter Dies at 76: Wrongly Jailed Boxer Championed Justice After Winning His Own

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The celebrated boxer and prisoner-rights activist Rubin “Hurricane” Carter has died at the age of 76. Carter became an international symbol of racial injustice after his wrongful murder conviction forced him to spend 19 years in prison before he was exonerated. Since his release, Carter championed the cause of wrongfully convicted prisoners. His ordeal was publicized in Bob Dylan’s 1975 song “Hurricane,” several books and a 1999 film starring Denzel Washington, “The Hurricane.” We are joined by two guests: John Artis, Carter’s co-defendant and close friend, who cared for him until his death, and Ken Klonsky, co-author of Carter’s autobiography, “Eye of the Hurricane: My Path from Darkness to Freedom,” and a director of media relations for Carter’s group, Innocence International. We also broadcast an excerpt from a 1994 speech by Carter about his life’s struggles and triumphs. Says Artis about his close friend: “He was a David against the justice system’s Goliath.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we spend the rest of the hour today looking at the life and legacy of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. He became an international symbol of racial injustice after his wrongful murder conviction forced him to spend 19 years in prison before he was exonerated. Carter died on Sunday at the age of 76. Many Americans originally knew Carter as one of the most dynamic prizefighters in boxing’s golden era. From ’61 to ’66, the middleweight fighter had a record 28 wins, 11 losses and one draw. But all of that came to an abrupt end when Carter was arrested for triple murder in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. Even as he asserted his innocence, the African-American boxer was wrongfully convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences.

In 1974, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter wrote his autobiography from prison called The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472. Two years later, the New Jersey State Supreme Court overturned his conviction on grounds the authorities withheld material evidence from the defense. But Carter was convicted again in a second trial in 1976. In 1985, that conviction was overturned by a U.S. district court judge, who concluded 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, “Hurricane” Carter was fiercely outspoken, refusing to subject himself to its regimens. He shunned the prison’s food, insisted on keeping his gold watch, refused to wear prison-issued clothes. His ordeal was publicized in Bob Dylan’s 1975 song “Hurricane,” several books and a 1999 film starring Denzel Washington, who received an Academy Award nomination for playing the boxer-turned-prisoner. This is a trailer from the film The Hurricane.

RUBIN CARTER: [played by Denzel Washington] Carter is the slave name that was given to my forefathers and was passed on to me. Hurricane is the professional name that I acquired later on in life. One thing I could do, and the only thing, was box.

SGT. DELLA PESCA: [played by Dan Hedaya] Can you believe that black punk? He thinks he’s champion of the world.

POLICE OFFICER: We’re looking for two Negroes in a white car.

RUBIN CARTER: Any two will do?

DETECTIVE: Look carefully, sir. Are these the two men who shot you?

RUBIN CARTER: He said no.

SGT. DELLA PESCA: Take another look, sir.

JUDGE SAMUEL LARNER: [played by Merwin Goldsmith] Rubin Carter, you are sentenced to be imprisoned for the remainder of your natural life.

RUBIN CARTER: I’m innocent. I’ve committed no crime. A crime has been committed against me. I’m dead. Just bury me, please.

PROTESTERS: The people, united, will never be defeated! The people, united, will never be defeated!

LISA PETERS: [played by Deborah Kara Unger] Oh, your first book, huh?

LESRA MARTIN: [played by Vicellous Reon Shannon] The Sixteenth Round.

LISA PETERS: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

SAM CHAITON: [played by Liev Schreiber] You know what, Les, sometimes we don’t pick the books we read; they pick us.

LESRA MARTIN: Dear Mr. Carter, I’ve read your book. I would like to come and visit you.

RUBIN CARTER: You think I killed those people, son?

LESRA MARTIN: No, no. I know you didn’t.

SAM CHAITON: Two juries found him guilty, Les.

LESRA MARTIN: But the man’s innocent. That he’s been in jail 15, 16 years, it’s just not right.

RUBIN CARTER: It’s very important to transcend the places that hold us.

SAM CHAITON: Did he see us?


LISA PETERS: You could understand we’re not leaving without you.

RUBIN CARTER: I’m 50 years old.

MYRON BEDLOCK: [played by David Paymer] Your Honor, this case was built on a foundation of lies.

RUBIN CARTER: Twenty years I’ve spent locked up in a cage. Justice, that’s all I ask. Hate put me in prison. Love is going to bust me out.

AMY GOODMAN: The trailer for the film The Hurricane. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter died in his home in Toronto on Sunday following a battle with prostate cancer. To discuss his legacy, we go to Toronto, where we’re joined by John Artis, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s co-defendant and friend. He’s been living with and caring for Carter since he fell ill.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!, John. Condolences to you, as you were with Rubin Carter to the end. Talk about the significance of Rubin Carter’s struggle against wrongful incarceration.

JOHN ARTIS: Well, good morning, and thank you for the condolences. Rubin primarily was a David against a Goliath of the judicial system. He abhorred injustice, unfairness, and any type of behavior or action that people who could not afford to speak out or fight up against, he felt like he had to champion their causes.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about how you met Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

JOHN ARTIS: Oh, I met him because we happened to know the same family in Paterson, New Jersey, and I was at the home one evening with my friend when he arrived. And I was briefly introduced to him at that time. But he wasn’t one that—a person that I palled around with. He was in a different ilk. He was a professional athlete. I was a well-known high school athlete. And we chose different sports. He boxed, and I played football, basketball and ran track. Actually, I had won a track scholarship to Colorado State prior to our arrest.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about what happened on that night in 1986 when you and “Hurricane” Carter were stopped by police.



JOHN ARTIS: Yes. And this was shortly, maybe two weeks, after I initially met Rubin. And I saw him in town, and I asked him to give me a ride the Nite Spot, which he did, which was a popular club in Paterson. And at the conclusion of the evening, I asked him to give me a ride home. He said OK. But if I—if he was going to take me home, I would have to drive. On the way out of the club, another individual asked Rubin if he could get a ride home. So the three of us got into his car. But first, Rubin wanted to go to his home. So, while he was directing me how to get to his home, which is on the east side of Paterson, we were stopped by the Paterson police.

And as you see in the film, an officer walked up and looked inside the car and wanted to see my license and registration. And when he noticed Rubin, he said, “Oh, champ, I didn’t see you there.” So Rubin said, “Well, what’s the problem?” He says, “Well, we’re looking for two Negroes.” But there were three of us in the car. So they permitted us to leave.

And Rubin went to his home, and I took the guy that was in the car with us, I drove him home first. And then I was en route to let myself out to go home, when we were stopped by the same police officer at an intersection in Paterson, and he didn’t bother to tell his reinforcements, so the support of other police officers that arrived, that he had already seen us, and there were three people in the car, when now there were only two. And at that juncture, they took us to the scene of the crime, and that was the beginning of the nightmare.

AMY GOODMAN: And you saw this horror, the scene of the crime.

JOHN ARTIS: Well, I saw—they made us get out of the car in this crowd of people that had gathered there, and made us stand up against the wall of the tavern. And while we were standing there, they began to bring out sheet-covered bodies to be put into ambulances and such. And then a patrol wagon pulled up, and we were taken to police headquarters.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about that first trial. You ended up in jail for 15 years. And then, ultimately, talk about Judge Sarokin and his role.

JOHN ARTIS: Oh, wow, well, the first trial, I had never been in trouble, and the death penalty was the penalty that was being sought in this trial. I had been—we had been charged with three counts of first-degree murder and one count of atrocious assault and battery with intent to kill. The trial lasted for six weeks. And my name was only mentioned once, and that was by the alleged two star witnesses for the state. At the conclusion of six weeks, the jury went into the deliberation room, and they only stayed four hours and came back. And when they returned, no one was looking at us. The women were crying. And since it was a first-degree murder case, it’s the only time in New Jersey law that the jury decides your sentence. So, when the foreman stated—stood up and stated that “We, the jury, find the defendants, Rubin Carter and John Artis, guilty,” my knees buckled. That’s the most afraid I’ve ever been in my entire life, because the next statement out of his mouth would determine exactly what was going to happen to us. And after staring at both of us, he finally said, “with a recommendation for mercy.” Had he stated “without a recommendation for mercy,” Rubin and I would have been put on death row.

AMY GOODMAN: You said in another interview, John Artis, “I was always the guy in the background, the other guy in the case that no one knew or cared about.”

JOHN ARTIS: Yes. They didn’t want me. The intent and effort was to get Rubin. As a matter of fact, the police stated that “All you have to do is just say that it was Rubin Carter, and we’ll let you go.” But I refused to do that. They tried the same thing 10 years later; I refused to do that. When they brought me out of prison and took me to my father’s home and prefaced a statement, when I walked through the door, that “We know that you didn’t kill anyone, but we think that you were there and/or you knew about it. So just sign a statement that says that Rubin Carter is the one that committed the crimes, and we’ll let you go. We’ll get you out of prison.” And I refused to do it at that time, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: John Artis, can you talk about the day that you and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter were ultimately freed?

JOHN ARTIS: Well, I was free before Rubin. I was released on parole in 1981, which was totally unprecedented, the way that I was released. I was given an 11-day date release. And that was because during 1971 we had a riot in Rahway, New Jersey, prison, and I released the hostages that were being held, because the population was deciding whether they should release them or kill them. And I didn’t think that was too good of an idea with the parking lot teeming with all types of police officers and law enforcement from all around the state, and the only thing that was precluding them from coming in were the lives of these hostages. So the state of New Jersey, the Department of Corrections, changed my status from maximum to minimum and allowed me to attend college. I went to Glassboro State College to get a degree in business administration. So, I was released in 11 days, which normally it would have been 18 months, 24 months or 36 months, either a rehearing or release date. But Rubin got out four years later when Judge Sarokin granted a writ of habeas corpus, stating in his opinion that the case was predicated on racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you in the courtroom when he was released?

JOHN ARTIS: I most certainly was.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe that moment.

JOHN ARTIS: Well, you could have heard a pin drop when Judge Sarokin came back in to read his opinion, his ruling. And the prosecutors of New Jersey were totally uncomfortable, because they weren’t prepared to deal with the case in federal court. They assumed that Judge Sarokin wouldn’t hear it, and he did. And once he told them that this case was the most egregious violation of constitutional rights that he had witnessed in all his years on the bench, I knew that a good thing was going to happen. And when he released Rubin and said that the writ of habeas corpus is granted and the defendant is released on his own recognizance, I ran and hurdled the bar that separated the audience from the defendant so I could give Rubin a hug.

AMY GOODMAN: And, John Artis, you gave up everything to move to Canada to care for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter as he died of cancer. Why?

JOHN ARTIS: Well, Rubin has always felt responsible for me, by me being ensnared in a trap that they had for him to incarcerate him forever. And he really wished that it had never happened. So, over the years, over the 48 years that I’ve known Rubin, we’ve cared for each other and protected each other and supported each other in anything that we had to do. To me, it’s a display of what I believed the definition of a friend is, and that’s loyalty. I’m loyal to my friends. Rubin has been loyal to me, and I have been loyal to Rubin. So, it was a no-brainer that now that he needed help, since he was always helping others, that it was incumbent upon me to go and help my partner.

AMY GOODMAN: Both of you could have been put on death row, as you said at the beginning—


AMY GOODMAN: —but ultimately were exonerated.

JOHN ARTIS: Yes. Yes, we could have.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now, in addition to John Artis, by Ken Klonsky, who co-wrote with Rubin the book Eye of the Hurricane: My Path from Darkness to Freedom. Nelson Mandela wrote the forward. Klonsky works for the Innocence International, founded by Dr. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. You’ve brought the book with you, Ken. Thanks for joining us from Vancouver. You brought the book with you to read some of Hurricane’s words. I was wondering if you might do that now.

KEN KLONSKY: OK. I’m going to read a passage where he was asked what his legacy would be after his death.

“One day a few seasons ago, I had just finished speaking to a group of people at a Toronto high school when a young woman in the audience stood up and asked me how I wanted my life to be remembered. I had to pause a long moment, because I’d never given the question a moment’s thought. When I did think about it, I realized that the way people remember me doesn’t really matter. What really matters is how I remember myself, the act of self-remembering that saved me from perdition. But given the opportunity, I answered her question like this: I was a prizefighter at one point in my life. I was a soldier at one point in my life. I was a convict at one point in my life. I was a jailhouse lawyer at one point. I was the executive director of AIDWYC at one point in my life—a black angel. Today, I am the CEO of Innocence International. I have been a writer and a doctor of laws. I have been many things and have many things still yet to be. But if I had to choose an epitaph to be carved upon my tombstone, it would simply read, 'He was just enough.' He was just enough to overcome everything that was laid on him on this earth. He was just enough not to give up on himself. He was just enough to believe in himself beyond anything else in this world. He was just enough to have the courage to stand up for his convictions no matter what problems his actions may have caused him. He was just enough to perform a miracle, to wake up, to escape the universal prison of sleep, and to regain his humanity in a living hell. He was just enough. And so, my young friend, are you.

“Just enough.”

AMY GOODMAN: Ken Klonsky, reading the book that he wrote with Rubin “Hurricane” Carter called Eye of the Hurricane. Nelson Mandela wrote the forward. Why Nelson Mandela, Ken Klonsky? How did he get involved with this case?

KEN KLONSKY: I think the two of them had parallel existences. I wouldn’t put Rubin in the category of Nelson Mandela, obviously, but they both were incarcerated in a sense that they were incarcerated unjustly, and they both rose above the confines that they were in, to the point where the jailers, the people who looked after them and oppressed them, had so much respect for them that they left them alone. It’s an extraordinary human integrity that both of them had. And Mandela recognized that in Rubin.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken, I want to turn to Carter’s work up until his death on behalf of David McCallum, a convicted murderer who had spent 29 years in prison. He was the focus of a piece Carter wrote just months ago in February that ran in the New York Daily News headlined “Hurricane Carter’s Dying Wish.” He’s also the focus of a new documentary made by your son, Ray Klonsky, called David & Me. In this clip from the trailer, we hear from Ray Klonsky and then Carter, but first David McCallum.

DAVID McCALLUM: He was saying that they had found a body in the park. And I said, “Officer, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And it was at that moment that he slapped me in my face.

RAY KLONSKY: People do falsely confess to crimes, particularly young teenagers.

RUBIN CARTER: These two teenagers had no chance with professional interrogators.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was Rubin there at the end. Last comment, Ken, about this case?

KEN KLONSKY: David McCallum was, along with a friend of his, similar to Rubin and John Artis, who you just interviewed. They were taken in, in a case where there was no evidence whatsoever that they did the crime, and they were forced, as 16-year-old kids, to confess to something they didn’t do. Certainly, Dr. Carter’s righteous anger against prosecutors forced him, in a sense, it urged him, to get involved in this case, because he saw himself and he saw the way prosecutors can twist the truth for their own ambitions. That was the one thing in life that made him exceptionally angry.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. Ken Klonsky, thanks for being with us. Your book with Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, Eye of the Hurricane: My Path from Darkness to Freedom. And John Artis, speaking to us from Toronto, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s co-defendant and friend, dropped everything to spend the last years with Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, caring for him in those last days. Ken Klonsky, speaking to us from Vancouver. When we come back from break, Bob Dylan’s song the “Hurricane,” we’re going to hear Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in his own words. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Bob Dylan singing “Hurricane” about the late boxer Rubin Carter. Carter was wrongfully convicted of murder, served 19 years in prison before the charges against him were dismissed. The boxer passed away Sunday at the age of 76. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter spoke at Queen’s University in Canada decades ago, in 1994, a few years after his release from prison. He talked about the importance of literacy, the power of reading and writing in his own life, as well as the life of Lesra Martin, the lawyer who helped secure Carter’s release from prison. This is a part of Rubin Carter’s address.

RUBIN CARTER: It’s a pleasure for me to be here at Queen’s University. It truly is. In fact, given my history, as we’ve seen, it’s a pleasure for me to be anywhere.

I’ve been invited here to speak, but I can tell you that speaking has not always been easy for me. For the first 18 years of my life, I had a terrible speech impediment. I couldn’t talk. I stuttered badly. I couldn’t say two clear words that made any sense to anybody else but me. And people laughed at me because of it. I felt stupid. You know, I really, really felt dumb. And when they laughed, the only sound they’d hear would be my fist whistling through the air. Do I hear laughter out there? My fists did my talking. Now, that stopped the laughter for a while, but it also got me into serious trouble, and it didn’t solve the problem. I still couldn’t talk.

Being stuck in a state of silence with all that frustration was my first experience of being locked away in a prison. You see, there are prisons, and there are prisons. They may look different, but they’re all the same. They’re all confining. They all limit your freedom. They all lock you away, grind you down and take a terrible toll on your self-esteem. There are prisons made of brick, steel and mortar. And then there are prisons without visible walls, prisons of poverty, illiteracy and racism. All too often, the people condemned to these metaphorical prisons—poverty, racism and illiteracy—end up doing double time. That is, they wind up in the physical prisons, as well. Our task, as reasonable, healthy, intelligent human beings, is to recognize the interconnectedness and the sameness of all these prisons, and then do something about them, because any kind of prison is no friend of mine. It brings out the hurricane in me.

So, my connection to imprisonment is obvious. But less apparent is the impact that literacy, reading and writing, books and words, have had on my life. There were years and years when books were my only friends. And because I was able to write my own book, The Sixteenth Round, and because Lesra, the young man you saw in the video, was literate enough to read it, I was literally set free. Now, that’s the awesome power of the written word.

Both Lesra and I grew up in what can only be described as war zones, the Third World in the heart of the world’s mightiest nation. Lesra’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood looked like Dresden after the Second World War—burnt-out buildings everywhere, rubble spilling out over the sidewalks, and the people’s expressions reflecting the destitution of their surroundings. The first lesson Lesra had to learn was not his ABCs, but how to duck under the nearest parked car at the first sound of a loud noise—gunfire. He never knew whether he would survive the trip to school or from school; nevertheless, he went there every day.

AMY GOODMAN: Rubin “Hurricane” Carter speaking at Queen’s University in Canada in 1994, a few years after his release from prison. The man he was talking about, Lesra Martin, was the lawyer who helped secure Carter’s release from prison. To hear the full speech, go to our website at democracynow.org.

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