The wrongfully convicted boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter became a pop culture icon thanks to Bob Dylan and Denzel Washington. Whether or not he was actually innocent is still highly controversial today.
Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame …”
Bob Dylan’s lines are almost 50 years old, but they still have an effect today. Not only musically. Rubin Carter – the boxer who is the subject of the classic song “Hurricane” – is still remembered.
Bob Dylan played a decisive role, as did Muhammad Ali, not to mention Hollywood star Denzel Washington, who played Carter in the film version of his eventful life in 1999, earning himself an Oscar nomination.
Carter served nearly 20 years in prison on suspicion of being involved in a triple murder at a New Jersey bar.
“The Hurricane,” who would have turned 85 today, was freed in 1985 because a federal court concluded that Carter was the victim of a “racially” motivated prosecution. Carter, who died in 2014, became a symbolic figure in the fight against racism and injustice, a national and world-renowned myth.
What often fell by the wayside in the telling of this myth, however, is that there are shadows on Carter’s story – and whether he was actually innocent is far less clear than came across in song and film. “
“Hurricane” Carter had long criminal history
Carter, born on 5 May 1937 in Clifton near New York, had been in trouble with the law many times before his professional career, which began in 1961.
Carter, who grew up in difficult circumstances with six siblings, was already sent to a juvenile detention centre at the age of eleven, having stabbed a man who allegedly sexually molested him.
He escaped from the institution, joined the US Army, where he was stationed in West Germany – and was dishonourably discharged in 1956 after four charges before a military court. After returning home, he served two prison terms for robbery.
“We walked around with our guns as naturally as others pocketed their wallets. We went out on the streets and started fights – against everything and everyone. We shot people,” Carter himself paraphrased his criminal history in a newspaper portrait published in 1964.
Great victories over former boxing world champions
In the boxing ring, Carter then managed to attract attention in other ways: In late 1963, he surprised experts with a knockout victory over former world champion Emile Griffith, and another big win came against Jimmy Ellis – a future heavyweight world champion who was then dethroned by Joe Frazier in 1970.
In 1964 Carter challenged world champion Joey Giardello but lost on points. In 40 professional fights, Carter ended up with 27 wins (12 losses, one draw).
But more famous than his sporting exploits were the events nine days after his last fight against Argentinian Juan Carlos Rivero.
Three dead after attack on New Jersey bar
On the night of June 17, 1966, two gunmen opened fire at a barbecue joint in the town of Paterson. Two victims of the attack – bartender James Oliver and patron Fred Nauyoks – died on the spot, and Hazel Tanis, a friend of Oliver’s, died of her injuries a month later.
Carter and John Artis, suspected as accomplices, were stopped by the police shortly afterwards and eventually arrested and charged. Several eyewitnesses claim to have recognised the two, among them a petty criminal who was the lookout for a department store robbery that happened to be taking place nearby – and used the act of murder to empty the bar’s cash register.
Carter and Artis were eventually convicted by a jury – all the jurors were white – and sentenced to life in prison. The imputed motive: arbitrary “racial revenge” because on the same day African-American bartender Leroy Holloway had been shot dead in the area by a white perpetrator.
Freedom after nearly two decades
The investigation process was accompanied by various oddities and was finally reopened for the first time in 1974 when the two main prosecution witnesses recanted their testimony that they had positively identified Carter and Artis.
A major campaign for Carter got underway at this point, the Dylan song and also a public partisanship by icon Muhammad Ali raised Carter’s case into the public consciousness – yet a second trial also ended in a guilty verdict, this time not by an “all white jury” either.
It was not until 1985 that the legal thriller came to an end: a federal judge in New Jersey ruled that the proceedings against Carter had been characterised by “racism instead of rationality, obfuscation instead of enlightenment”. Carter was set free, the prosecution did not open a new trial.
Victim relatives remained convinced of Carter’s guilt
Whether Carter was truly innocent has not been proven, the damning reversal verdict referred to the numerous clear procedural errors and legal violations in the prosecution.
Various survivors of the victims nevertheless remained convinced of Carter’s guilt – and reacted as angrily to his dismissal as they did to the 1999 film, in which his story was exaggerated and kitsched up with many invented details.
“They made a hero out of a cold-blooded murderer,” protested Barbara Burns, daughter of the slain Hazel Tanis, against the Hollywood version of the Carter case.
Rubin Carter died of prostate cancer in 2014
Also rather forgotten today is an episode that dried up a major chunk of public support for Carter in 1976: Carolyn Kelley, a bail bondswoman who was fundraising for him, accused Carter of “violently beating” her in a dispute over an outstanding bill.
The incident never ended up in court, but the allegations got many of Carter’s supporters wondering – apparently including Bob Dylan, who hasn’t sung his Hurricane song live since 1976.
Carter moved to Canada after his release from prison in 1985, became a motivational speaker and for years also the executive director of an organisation for the wrongfully convicted.
Carter, who died of prostate cancer in 2014, lived a blameless life and earned undisputed merits in the fight for a fairer justice system: Shortly before his death, he successfully campaigned for David McCallum, who was wrongly convicted of murder and served 29 years for a murder he did not commit.