In the days before the advent of forensic DNA testing, exonerations were relatively rare. Few in America had a sense of how common wrongful convictions were. Even into the 1990s, it was rare to see the now-common media coverage of men being released after decades in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was an exception.
Carter’s case became a cause celebre. Bob Dylan wrote a song about Carter. Amnesty International called him a “prisoner of conscience.” Denzel Washington later portrayed Carter in a film and was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance.
It is worth recalling that Carter’s murder convictions, first in 1967, then again, at a retrial in 1976, were not the result of an innocent mistake. In both instances, his convictions were tainted by prosecutorial misconduct.
In the mid-1960s Hurricane Carter was a fierce professional boxer of some renown. He had a record of 27-12 and had fought for (though not won) the world middleweight title. But his life changed forever in on June 17, 1966 after two black men entered the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Patterson, New Jersey and fatally shot three white people, two patrons and a bartender. Minutes later, acting on a tip that the shooters had fled in a white car, police stopped Carter and two friends who were traveling in a white Dodge about 14 blocks from the scene of the murders. Neither Carter nor John Artis (one of the men traveling with Carter) matched the descriptions of the attackers. Neither were identified by either of the surviving victim-witnesses. Nevertheless both Carter and Artis were later arrested, tried and convicted for the Lafayette Bar murders. They were sentenced to life.
Carter and Artis’ conviction hinged largely on the testimony of two witnesses, Alfred Bello and Arthur Bradley, who saw two men – ostensibly the perpetrators – outside the bar, fleeing from the scene. Neither Bello nor Bradley initially identified Carter or Artis as the men they saw fleeing. But months later, Bello and Bradley changed their mind and said that Carter and Artis were in fact the men they had seen fleeing. Years later, it came to light that the State had made representations to Bello and Bradley that they would receive favorable treatment with regard to their own criminal cases if they implicated Carter and Artis. Prosecutors knew about this exculpatory evidence and nevertheless failed to disclose it to the defense in violation of the Constitution.
For example, the State suggested it would drop breaking and entering and robbery charges against Bello and that it would help get Bello’s parole (in a different case) transferred to another state. The prosecutor assured Bello he would go to bat for him: “I will go to the top people in the State of New Jersey. I promise you this.” Three days after these inducements, Bello gave the State a written statement implicating Carter and Artis.
Similarly, the State promised Bradley that if he testified against Carter and Artis, it would go to bat for him by “inform[ing] every prosecutor’s office in the State where there were pending charges against Bradley of his having testified as a State’s witness in a triple homicide case.” After he received these inducements, Bradley gave the State a written statement implicating Carter.
(Both Bello and Bradley later recanted their identifications of Carter and Artis.)
Crazily enough, these kinds of inducements are permitted! But because prosecutors failed to disclose the inducements to the defense, in 1976 the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned Carter and Artis’ convictions and ordered a new trial.
But the story does not end there. The State retried Carter and Artis in 1976, and once again, the trial was tainted by prosecutorial misconduct. Prior to the second trial, the State performed a polygraph examination of Bello because notwithstanding his recantation of his trial testimony implicating Carter and Artis, the State, once again, hoped to use Bello as a witness. Though the polygraph examination included some material that suggested Bello’s recantation was true and that he had lied at trial when he identified Carter and Artis, the State, once again, failed to disclose this exculpatory material to the defense.
When all of this came to light, a court again overturned Carter’s conviction because of prosecutorial misconduct. This time, prosecutors elected not to retry him. In all, Carter served 19 years in prison.
We’ll let Dylan take it from here:
Rubin Carter was falsely tried
The crime was murder one guess who testified
Bello and Bradley and they both baldly lied
And the newspapers they all went along for the ride
How can the life of such a man
Be in the palm of some fool’s hand ?
To see him obviously framed
Couldn’t help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land
Where justice is a game.
Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell
That’s the story of the Hurricane
But it won’t be over till they clear his name
And give him back the time he’s done
Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been
The champion of the world.
The New York Times obituary for Rubin Hurricane Carter is here.