Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter (1937-2014)

Rubin Carter at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, March 24, 2011
Courtesy Michael Borkson (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Rubin Carter was an American middleweight boxer, who is best known not because of his sports career but because of his murder conviction in 1967 and exoneration in 1985. Carter, born in Clifton, New Jersey on May 6, 1937, the fourth of seven children. Shortly after his fourteenth birthday, he was sentenced to a juvenile reformatory for assault and robbery. Carter was a 5-foot 8-inch, 160-pound boxer who got his start fighting after he enlisted in the U.S. Army. After leaving the army, he fought in the amateur circuit, knocking out 36 opponents and eventually working his way into the professional ranks in 1961. Because of his rapid boxing style, he was given the nickname “The Hurricane.”

Carter’s middleweight title shot came in 1964 when he faced defending champion Joey Giardello in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The fight went 15 rounds, and Carter lost on a split decision. Carter continued boxing and was training for his second title bout with the new champ, Dick Tiger, when he and his friend, John Artis, were arrested in 1966 and charged with murdering three white people during a robbery in Paterson, New Jersey. Although the two key prosecution witnesses were felons who had been recently released from prison, an all-white jury convicted Carter and Artis on May 27, 1967.

Nearly eight years later, in 1975, after the two key witnesses recanted their testimony, blaming the police for pressuring them into testifying, and new information surfaced about the robbery. Carter and Artis appealed their convictions. A new trial was granted, but on December 22, 1976, both Carter and Artis were once again convicted of murder.

Despite being twice convicted, Carter continued to claim his innocence and work for his release. With the help of new attorneys, in 1985, he petitioned to have his conviction overturned. U.S. District Court Judge Haddon Lee Sarokin granted his petition, stating that the two previous convictions, “were based upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.”

After his release, Carter became an activist for the writ of habeas corpus, the process that allows incarcerated individuals a chance to argue the legitimacy of their conviction in front of a judge. Carter became a motivational speaker who often described to his audiences the various events and the legal process that led to his freedom. He also worked with a number of groups that support wrongly imprisoned individuals. In 1999, the movie The Hurricane was released about Carter’s life, with Denzel Washington playing the embattled boxer. Although some critics challenged portions of the film’s historical accuracy, it nevertheless brought attention to Carter and his long fight for freedom and to others who have been wrongly convicted.

In 1993, Carter moved to Toronto, Ontario and became a Canadian citizen. While there, he was executive director of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted (ADWC). In 1996, he received the Abolition Award from the organization Death Penalty Focus, and in 2005, he received honorary Doctor of Law degrees from York University in Toronto and Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia. In March 2012, Carter revealed that he had terminal prostate cancer. He died in Toronto on April 20, 2014, at age seventy-six.