Rubin "Hurricane" Carter Gripping Jail Bars

views updated

Rubin "Hurricane" Carter Gripping Jail Bars


By: Anonymous

Date: 1975

Source: Bettmann Archives, Corbis Corporation.

About the Photographer: This image is owned by Corbis a photo agency headquartered in Seattle, Washingtong. Corbis licenses images for use in magazines, films, television, and advertisements. The photographer is unknown.


Rubin Carter (1937–) acquired the nickname "Hurricane" when he was an aspiring middleweight boxer, battling his way to international prominence from the rugged environs of Paterson, New Jersey. In 1966, Carter was a ranked middleweight contender, with aspirations of becoming a world boxing champion. On June 17, 1966, Carter and a friend, John Artis, were intending to spend the evening in a local Paterson tavern. At a nearby establishment, the Lafayette Bar and Grill, two black men burst into the lounge, each armed with a gun and clearly intent on a robbery. The Lafayette did not serve blacks and it had an all white clientele. In the struggle, two people were shot and killed by the robbers, who fled the scene. Carter and Artis were stopped in Carter's vehicle not far from the Lafayette. A subsequent investigation located two live rounds in Carter's vehicle that matched the caliber of the murder weapon used at the Lafayette. Carter and Artis were identified by eyewitnesses from the Lafayette as the perpetrators; a number of these witness statements were later recanted or otherwise undermined. Carter provided an alibi after his arrest, which was later established to be false.

Race was a dominant theme in the proceedings against Rubin Carter from the time of his arrest. Carter and Artis were black, as were the robbers observed by the eyewitnesses. The police investigators and all of the key prosecution witnesses were white. Carter maintained, in a variety of ways, that he and Artis were the victims of a police frame-up. In the first trial, all available witnesses testified, including those whose stories had changed in any fashion between the night of the murders and date of the prosecution. Carter and Artis were convicted of murder in May 1967, and they faced the death penalty as a result.

The racial overtones of the trial were precipitating factors in the increasing publicity concerning Rubin Carter and what was seen by many as a wrongful conviction. Carter launched an appeal, a process that spanned a period of more than eight years. Numerous issues regarding trial and procedural fairness were raised on appeal, and the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered a new trial. The second trial was held in June 1976, and a jury again convicted Carter and Artis of the robbery and the murders at the Lafayette. The essential foundation for the prosecution case in the second trial was unchanged from the 1967 proceedings—a combination of eye-witness identification, the live ammunition, and Carter's apparently false alibi.

The second trial and conviction of Carter did not silence public outrage; in the minds of many, Carter was a symbol of all that was wrong with the American justice system, which was widely seen as discriminatory in its treatment of the black population. Carter's circumstances became an international cause célèbre, and support from a number of international groups galvanized around him. With such assistance, Carter successfully appealed his second conviction in 1985, with the New Jersey Supreme Court again ordering a new trial, highlighting further procedural errors made at the second trial. The state decided that it would not prosecute Carter a third time; he had spent nineteen years in prison between the time of his arrest and the final decision of the prosecution.

Carter and his supporters claimed the outcome was an exoneration; no such official or legal pronouncement has ever been made regarding the case. Carter moved to Canada, where he was a member of the Association in Defense of the Wrongfully Convicted (ACWYC), based in Toronto. He resigned from this organization, amidst dissension with its Canadian leadership, in 2004.



See primary source image.


In 1975, singer Bob Dylan recorded the song, "Hurricane" (the first stanza is quoted below) both in tribute to Carter and as a condemnation of the perceived police racism that had worked against him. The popular song captured an ethos and a sensibility that was evident throughout much of the United States in 1975:

    Pistol shots ring out in the barroom night    Enter Patty Valentine from the upper hall.    She sees the bartender in a pool of blood,    Cries out, "My God, they killed them all!"    Here comes the story of the Hurricane,    The man the authorities came to blame    For somethin' that he never done.    Put in a prison cell, but one time he could-a been    The champion of the world.

Although the events are unconnected, the notion of a wrong to be righted for Rubin Carter—a racially rooted sin to be redressed—carried with it for his supporters the same moral imperative that flooded from the Watergate scandals.

As with many prosecutions where an accused person is held up as a symbol of an injustice like racism, the cause is often far more attractive than the purported victim himself. Rubin Carter became an international symbol of what was wrong with American justice; the drive to free him focused on his race and policing attitudes towards blacks, while setting aside two jury verdicts reached on the basis of the physical evidence of live ammunition, a false alibi, and a number of eyewitnesses, however tainted. There was an undoubted racial divide in America in 1975; whether that divide and Carter's guilt intersected is a significant issue that remains current.

In addition to the spotlight that the Carter prosecution cast upon race in the justice system, the broader issue of wrongful conviction and its consequences, which was the motivation for many seeking Carter's freedom, is cast in a different light today. Scientific testing—both DNA evidence and sophisticated ballistics analysis—often level a playing field tilted by racial inequality and intolerance. The Lafayette Lounge murder scene in 1966 would be approached by investigators today more systematically and scientifically; the evidence gathered at such scenes today is subjected to forensic analysis in the hope that science can provide definitive answers regarding guilt and innocence. Science has not eradicated issues of race in criminal investigations, but it has provided a measure of objectivity absent in 1966 America.

Rubin Carter moved to Toronto after his 1985 release from prison in New Jersey. He became an evocative symbol for the Canadian group, the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted, and a member of the ADWYC board. The ADWYC, which were engaged in their own high profile Canadian causes, were quick to capitalize on the fame of Rubin Carter as a purported symbol of a wrongly convicted person. It is significant that Carter has never been exonerated by the legal system or otherwise declared innocent of the Lafayette murders. The fact that he can credibly be held up as such a symbol is more a testament to the characterizations of Carter presented by the media and his celebrity supporters, than to any conclusions drawn from a close examination of the facts of the killings.

Today, DNA technology is a powerful tool in the re-examination of doubtful convictions. An equally notorious 1982 murder case resulted in the conviction and 1992 execution of Richard Coleman by the state of Virginia. This case was the subject of worldwide commentary, including a plea for Coleman's life by Pope John Paul II. Richard Coleman, like Rubin Carter, was held up by opponents of the death penalty as a man convicted (and in Coleman's case, executed) for a crime he did not commit, and proof of the need for the abolition of the death penalty. DNA testing definitively established that Coleman was the murderer in January 2006.



Hirsh, James S. Hurricane: the Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.

Wice, Paul B. Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and the American Justice System. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998.

Web sites

The Graphic Witness. "Hurricane Carter: The Other Side of the Story." 〈〉 (accessed January 13, 2006).

University of Washington School of Law. "The Hurricane." 〈〉 (accessed January 11, 2006).