Rubin Carter Felled by Cancer at 76

Rubin CarterRubin Carter, the middleweight boxer whose greatest battles were fought in real life rather than in the ring, passed away today at 76 years of age, after a long battle with prostate cancer at the end of a life in which, sooner or later, he always beat the odds. A smallish middleweight contender, just five-eight in a field where the average boxer is five-ten or five-eleven, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter leaves behind a record of 27 wins, 12 losses, and one draw but his greatest legacy was taking on and defeating the American legal system from inside a prison cell in a hard-fought technical knockout.

Rubin Carter, the fourth child in a family of seven, a Clifton, New Jersey native, was born in a state where they really love their boxers, but Carter never got much love from his home town. Born with a hereditary speech impediment that might explain his youthful combative nature, Carter was sent to reform school at the age of 14 on assault charges in 1951. He escaped from reform school in 1954 and, at 17 years of age, enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he learned to box on Army teams while stationed in Germany, only to be bounced out of the service two years into his three-year enlistment with an undesirable discharge. Picked up on escapee charges, the now 19 year-old Carter was sentenced to an additional nine month, landing him in prison for the first time. Immediately upon his release, Carter admittedly committed a series of muggings that landed him back in prison for another four-year stint.

In 1961, upon his release from prison, Carter decided to lace up his boxing gloves again and step back into the ring, beginning a career as a journeyman boxer that might never have attracted much attention, if it were not for his incarceration on what are still questionable charges. Nicknamed The Hurricane for his lighting fast combinations and his aggressive, hard punching style of boxing, Carter nevertheless suffered from the short boxer’s malady, the impediment of a relatively short reach, necessitating a fighting style that exhausts boxers after a few fast and furious early rounds.

He defeated the great middleweight champion, Emile Griffith, with a first round technical knockout in 1963 but, because the bout took place between Griffith’s two tenancies as middleweight champion, the victory did not give Rubin Carter the middleweight crown. The victory over Griffiths did, however, give Carter the number three seed in the list of middleweight contenders, which entitled him to at least a shot at the crown against incumbent Joey Giardello, a position he solidified in a 15 round decision over future heavyweight champion, Jimmy Ellis.

The December 14, 1965 bout against middleweight champion Giardello was the high point of Carter’s career, but it was also the beginning of his decline as a boxer, ending in a 15 round unanimous decision that Carter admits he lost by failing to take the fight to the champion, which is rule number one for a contender facing an incumbent. Carter, it must be said, was a middleweight contender whose star was already fading in 1967, when he and his lifelong friend, John Artis, were tried and convicted for the murder of three people at the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey, on the night of June 17, 1966, despite testimony that put both men in another bar at the time the murders were committed.

Two survivors of the attack, Hazel Tanis (who later died from her wounds) and Willie Marins both testified that Carter and Artis were not the assailants when confronted with the two men immediately after the incident.  The prosecution preferred to believe two convicted felons, Alfred Bello and Arthur Bradley, who put Carter and Artis at the scene of the crime, reportedly in order gain immunity for their own crimes. The first trial ended in a conviction that surprised reporters because of the poorly documented case presented by the prosecution, the lack of physical evidence tying the defendants to the crime scene and eyewitness testimony that did not corroborate the state’s case.

The conviction began Rubin Carter’s 19 year odyssey through the American legal system during which Carter was tried twice and convicted, twice, on the same allegedly perjured evidence in what has been portrayed in the media and in legal circles as a gross miscarriage of justice.  The conviction illustrated the extent of the racial tensions that existed in America in 1967 and, to a somewhat lesser extent, still exist today. Sentenced to two consecutive life terms and one concurrent term, Carter was never going to see the light of day again unless his convictions could be overturned.

In 1974, witnesses Bello and Bradley recanted their identifications of Carter and Artis but a new trial judge, Samuel Larner, denied Carter and Artis’ motion for a new trial. In 1975, Carter’s autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, found its way into the hands of Bob Dylan who, with co-author Jacques Levy, turned the story into the hugely successful song, Hurricane,” which became the centerpiece of his  “Rolling Thunder Review” concert tour. Dylan followed that up with a benefit concert that raised $100,000 for Carter’s defense fund.

rubin carterDespite the widespread public attention attracted by Dylan’s song, a second trial in 1976 resulted in confirmations of the guilty verdicts on the basis of the same evidence presented in the original trial, which required witnesses Bello and Bradley to “unrecant” their previous recantations. Lie detector evidence was admitted supporting the prosecution’s contention that Bello and Bradley were telling the truth at the first trial, but lied when they recanted their testimony in 1974. This may be the only time that lie detector evidence has been used to contradict a defendant’s own testimony by disproving a witness’s recantation, but it was sufficiently convincing for the judge to allow it, and for the jury to re-convict on the basis of the recanted testimony.

Carter was released briefly in 1976 while awaiting his second trial. While he was out on bail, Carter allegedly assaulted Carolyn Kelley, a bail bondsman from Newark who had been working to gain Carter’s release. The story about the assault was made public during the 1976 trial, which resulted in a second conviction on all charges.

In the end, however, the system finally worked, if very belatedly. John Artis was paroled in 1981. Carter appealed his conviction again in 1982, but the New Jersey State Supreme Court affirmed the earlier convictions. In 1985, however, federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin granted a writ of habeas corpus, setting aside Carter’s convictions on the grounds of racial bias and other technical deficiencies. New Jersey appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which upheld Sarokin’s findings. The United States Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. Finally, the State of New Jersey filed a motion to dismiss the charges on the grounds that it was not legally feasible to re-try the case after 22 years.

After his release in 1985, Carter moved to Toronto, Canada, where he began working with troubled adolescents and eventually became the Executive Director of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Accused, which works on behalf of inmates who have been unjustly imprisoned, from 1993 to 2005, when he resigned over a policy dispute with the board of directors. He, and John Artis, also founded Innocence International, a nonprofit that works with wrongly accused inmates all over the world. Carter remained associated with the Innocence Project throughout the rest of his life.

In March of 2012, Carter announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal prostate cancer and was given three to six months to live. Typically, he beat that estimate by 18 months until he passed away at his home in Toronto in his sleep last night. Carter was 74. His longtime friend, caregiver and fellow defendant, John Artis was, as always, by his side.

rubin carter
Bob Dylan visiting with Rubin Carter, 1975; this is a signed copy of a postcard that Rubin used to give to visitors.

In his struggles to prove his innocence and obtain his release, Carter was only successful on the second count. His guilt or innocence of the original charges have never been clearly proven, nor have they ever been clearly refuted. In four tries, he never succeeded in proving his innocence in court and his final release was the result of a legal stratagem and had more to do with compassion than with the correction of what might have been a miscarriage of justice.

Just as the State of New Jersey decided not to retry Carter in 1986 because the evidence was too old and the witnesses no longer reliable, the same could be said for the exculpatory evidence, eye witnesses who have passed away, and forensic evidence that was either never collected, or improperly preserved.Some of the obituaries coming out today describe Carter as a fearsome boxer, but he was not that fearsome in the ring.  He had skills.  He could punch, but the old videos show a more cautious, less ferocious fighter than the legend has become. Bob Dylan may have been more accurate than many other reporters, when he wrote that, “Rubin could take a man out with just one punch. But he never did like to talk about it all that much. It’s my work he’d say and I do it for pay. And when it’s over I’d just as soon go on my way.”

Rubin Carter, in some respects, is a footnote in the history of the Civil Rights movement. In other respects, he is a life-sized model for the athlete who had the skills, but lacked the luck that turns skilled athletes into champions. He had a very mean left jab, and a one-two combination faster than you can blink. That is a good enough epitaph for any boxer.


By Alan M. Milner
Look for me on Twitter:@alanmilner


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