Rubin "Hurricane" Carter Trials: 1967, 1988
Rubin "Hurricane" Carter Trials: 1967,
Defendant: Rubin "Hurricane" Carter
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: First Trial: Raymond Brown; Second Trial: Myron Beldock; Federal Court Appeal: Myron Beldock, Leon Friedman, Lewis Steel
Chief Prosecutors: First Trial: Vincent Hall; Second Trial: Ronald Marmo; Federal Court Appeal: John Goceljak Judges: First Trial: Samuel Larner; Second Trial: Bruno Leopizzi; Federal Court Appeal: H. Lee Sarokin
Place: First Trial: Paterson, New Jersey; Second Trial: Paterson, New Jersey; Final Appeal: Newark, New Jersey
Date of Trials: First Trial: April 7, 1967-May 26, 1967; Second Trial: November 11 , 1976-December 20, 1976; Final Appeal Filed: February 13, 1985; Heard, July 26, 1985; Decision, November 7, 1985
Verdicts: First Trial: Guilty on three counts of first-degree murder; Second Trial: Guilty on three counts of first-degree murder; Final Appeal: Overturned the state's case, trial, and judgment on grounds of withholding evidence and an unacceptable charge of a motive
Sentences: First Trial: two consecutive life sentences, one concurrent life sentence; Second Trial: Two consecutive life sentences, one concurrent life sentence; Final Appeal: Carter released from prison
SIGNIFICANCE: This would have been one of the more publicized legal cases of its era if only because it involved three murders and an alleged murderer who was a nationally-ranked boxer, but what struck such a controversial note were its undertones of racial prejudice and its overtones of celebrity charisma. Beyond its two major trials, a series of appeals, and numerous lives caught up in its wake, the case generated several books, a well-known song, and a powerful movie. And to this day, because the original prosecutors would not accept the final verdict of the courts, the case is officially "unsolved."
Shortly after 2 a.m. on June 17, 1966, two men entered the Lafayette Grill, a dreary bar in a working-class neighborhood of Paterson, New Jersey. One of the men carried a12-gauge shotgun; the other had a .32 caliber handgun. With little warning and no apparent provocation, the men shot and instantly killed the bartender and a man at the bar and shot and seriously wounded another male and female patron (the woman died of complications a month later). All the victims were whites; the two gunmen were black. When the police arrived on the scene, two witnesses reported that they had seen two black men flee from the bar and drive off in a white car.
Moving in on Carter
Immediately the radio call went out to police in Paterson to look for a white car with two black males. About 2:40 a.m., a policeman stopped a white car, but it had three black men; one of them was well known to the policeman, so they were allowed to drive on. But about one half hour later, after one of the men had been left off at his home, the car was stopped by police again. This time, the two remaining men were taken to a hospital where one of the wounded patrons was asked if either of these two were the men who had shot up the bar. He shook his head emphatically no. Back at the police station, the two men were given a lie-detector test, and when it was announced they had passed, they were released. But on October 14, the Paterson police arrested the two black men, John Artis and Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, and charged them with the three murders.
Artis was a 19-year-old who had been a track and football star in high school; soon to be drafted into the army, he was hoping to get a track scholarship to a college; he had no criminal record and had never been in trouble with the police. Carter had a totally different resume. As a young man he had been in frequent trouble with the law, even serving several years in prison; but in the army he had taken up boxing and after leaving prison in 1961 he became a professional. His ferocious manner in the ring earned him the nickname "Hurricane," and by the time of his arrest he was regarded as a potential contender for the middleweight championship of the world.
More significantly for what lay ahead, Carter was an individual who refused to adhere to any of the constraints expected of a black man at that time and in a community like Paterson. He carried on in a flamboyant way—shaved and polished his head, dressed in a flashy style and drove conspicuous cars, frequented nightclubs, played around with women. He also had spoken out bluntly against the injustices visited upon African Americans. All this had earned him the enmity of many white people in Paterson, and the New Jersey police and FBI were known to constantly shadow and harass him. Now Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was charged with three murders.
First Trial Ends in Conviction
The trial took place in the Passaic County Court in Paterson, New Jersey, and it came at a time when there was great unrest in the African-American communities across the United States. Just finding a jury willing to deal with the controversial Carter took three weeks. In the end, the 14 jurors (this included two substitutes) included only one person of color—a West Indian. In his opening statement, the prosecutor claimed that the police had found an unspent shotgun shell and .32 caliber bullet in the car Carter was riding in that evening—yet this evidence had never been cited during the four months between the police's search of his car and his arrest. Carter's lawyer announced that this would be challenged, and it later turned out that neither the shell nor the bullet was of the same kind found at the crime scene.
Long before this, Carter's lawyer lit into the first witness called by the prosecution—the one surviving bar patron, William Marins. He was the man who on the night of the murders had told the police that Carter and Artis were not the men who had shot him and the others. Before he was through, the lawyer established that Marins had on more than one occasion testified that the two gunmen were tall and light-colored men, and that one had a moustache. Neither Carter nor Artis fit that description; Carter in particular was short, very dark, wore a beard—and above all, had his unmistakable trademark, his polished bald head.
The rest of the state's evidence was equally weak. The murder weapons had never been found; there were no bloodstains on Carter's or Artis's belongings; the police had not taken any fingerprints nor conducted paraffin tests of the defendants' hands (for traces of gunpowder). One of the witnesses, a woman who lived above the bar and claimed she had a good view of the get-away car's taillights, described lights different from those on Carter's car that night.
There had been talk of the state's producing "mystery witnesses," and this they did. They were two small-time crooks, Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, who freely admitted that on the night of the murders they were engaged in trying to rob a nearby business. Bradley simply testified that he had seen Carter running down the street after the shooting, but Bello produced an elaborate story. He had seen three black men cruising in a white car before he decided to go into the bar to buy a pack of cigarettes. As he approached the tavern, he heard shots and saw two black men emerge with a shotgun and pistol; he got a clear look at them and fled as the two got into the white car and drove away. Bello then went into the bar and saw all the bodies, but he simply stole $62 from the cash register. Confronted with the fact that on the night of the murders, he had not identified Carter or Artis when they were brought to the bar or the police station, Bello claimed he had been afraid that his life would be in danger.
When it came to the defense case, all Carter and Artis could do was to provide accounts of their activities that night and witnesses to support their versions of events. Typical of Carter, though, he took the stand in the same cream-colored sport coat he was wearing the night of the murders. This was to highlight the fact that the same woman who said she had a good view of the getaway car's headlights had also described the two fleeing black men as wearing dark clothes.
In the end, though, the jury was not influenced by any of the evidence that might clear Carter and Artis. They apparently accepted the prosecution's claim that Carter and Artis had committed these slayings to revenge the murder of a black barkeeper by a white man earlier that evening—only a few blocks from the Lafayette Grill. After only two hours of deliberation, the jury returned with a unanimous verdict: guilty of all three counts. The jury's only act of moderation was to recommend life imprisonment instead of execution. And although Artis got the same judgment as Carter, it was quite clear to all involved that the prosecution was most pleased that it had finally put Carter away for life.
Second Conviction Overturned on Appeal
But Carter was not your typical prisoner—he was even given a $10,000 advance from a publisher for an autobiography he soon published under the title The Sixteenth Round. His case had attracted the attention of numerous prominent individuals, including a reporter for the New York Times who located the two petty crooks, Bello and Bradley, who had claimed to have seen Carter and Artis running from the bar. They now recanted their testimony, admitting that they had lied to gain favorable treatment from the police. By 1975 the Hurricane Trust Fund had been started and a host of celebrities were lending their names to his cause—everyone from Burt Reynolds and Stevie Wonder to Muhammad Ali and Coretta Scott King. Perhaps the biggest boost to the campaign to get a new trial for Carter came when Bob Dylan wrote a song, "Hurricane," and proceeded to sing it across the country.
Then in March 1976, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the convictions of Carter and Artis on the grounds that the prosecution had withheld a tape recording of an interview with Bello that revealed the state had promised Bello favorable treatment in return for his testimony. The two men were freed on bail (most of it posted by Muhammad Ali) but the New Jersey prosecutor soon re-indicted them. By the time the second trial began in November 1976, Bello had once again changed his story and he became the prosecution's chief witness. This time he took the stand and insisted that not only had he seen Carter and Artis running from the bar, he had told the police so that night. Equally damaging to the defense, the judge allowed the prosecution to introduce testimony about the angry blacks that had gathered outside the bar that evening, the bar where a white man had shot the black bartender. This fortified the state's claim that Carter and Artis had shot the four in retaliation.
The second jury convicted Carter and Artis on the same three counts of first degree murder. The two went back to prison, and it took another nine years and a frustrating series of appeals before a federal judge in New Jersey, H. Lee Sarokin, set aside the convictions, on the grounds that the state had violated the constitutional rights of Carter and Artis by failing to disclose the results of a lie detector test given to Bello and by introducing the claim that the killings were motivated by racial revenge. On August 21, 1987, the Federal Third Circuit Court upheld Judge Sarokin, and on February 27, 1988, the state of New Jersey formally announced it would not seek to re-indict Carter. The long trial of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter had finally ended.
—John S. Bowman
Suggestions for Further Reading
Carter, Rubin "Hurricane." The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472. New York: Viking Press, 1974.
Chaiton, Sam, and Terry Swinton. Lazarus and the Hurricane. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2000.
Hirsch, James. Hurricane —the Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.