He speaks not in sentences or paragraphs but in highly polished sermons delivered with the rhythmic cadences of a gospel preacher. Although he has sight in only one eye, his gaze is piercing. And while his mantelpiece displays a belt attesting to his honorary title of middleweight boxing champion of the world, the fighter once known as "Hurricane" because of his punishing left hook now concedes that he finds the sport barbaric. His new passion: gardening.
What's most striking, however, is this: Despite having spent 19 years in prison for a triple murder he never committed, Rubin Carter considers himself blessed.
"I would not change one thing in my life, not one single thing," he says as he sits in the basement of his tidy brick house on Toronto's west side. "Remember, everything that went before has made me what I am today. And today I am deeply and seriously in love with myself. I don't want to be anyone but who I am. I am perfect."
He lets out a loud, theatrical laugh meant to demonstrate his newfound lust for life. But as the conversation continues and the laughter is repeated, it becomes clear that it also serves as a salve for deep emotional scars, wounds that have left him estranged from much of his family, his country and even those who worked hardest to win his release.
Still, these are heady days for Carter, 63. His story, chronicled early on in a Bob Dylan ballad, is now movingly portrayed by actor Denzel Washington in the film "The Hurricane," which opens tomorrow in Washington to a full-buzz of Academy Award expectations. Carter has already been to a special screening for President Clinton at the White House, and later this month there will be another at the United Nations to celebrate Human Rights Day.
Then, too, there's "Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter," the new authorized biography out this month by journalist James S. Hirsch, along with a reissue of "Lazarus and the Hurricane," an earlier chronicle of his fall and rise by Canadian friends Terry Swinton and Sam Chaiton.
And yet in the middle of what has become a whirlwind of publicity and celebrity hobnobbing, Carter is intent on not losing sight of his new mission: gaining freedom for others who may have been unjustly imprisoned. His Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted, run out of the second floor of his house, has already helped spring a number of high-profile prisoners from Canadian jails with the use of volunteer lawyers and gumshoes and newfangled DNA evidence.
"I'm supposed to be locked up in Trenton State Prison, but I'm here in Toronto speaking to you free, alive and healthy, and the world is applauding without knowing what it is applauding," Carter says of his renewed celebrity. "What needs to be discussed is why do people have to undergo this kind of struggle when it is really unnecessary. The fact is that there are many innocent people locked up in prison, and somebody ought to be held accountable for that."
Playing the Race Card
In the case of New Jersey v. Rubin Carter, it's fair to say there has been no accountability. Most of the prosecutors have gone on to become trial judges and the trial judges have gone on to become appellate judges. The cop who headed the investigation was promoted. H. Lee Sarokin, the federal judge who finally overturned Carter's conviction, was virtually hounded into retirement by law-and-order Republicans who tagged him with the moniker "Let 'em go Lee."
Now, however, Hollywood aims to even the score with an inspiring morality play that not only demonizes the Jersey cops and prosecutors and glorifies Carter's saintly resolve but also tells the largely unknown story of a small band of idealistic Canadians who turned their lives upside down to win Carter's freedom.
The essential story begins in Paterson on the night of June 16, 1966. Two black men entered the Lafayette Grill and opened fire with a shotgun and a pistol, killing the owner and two patrons before fleeing in a white sedan. Within hours, Paterson police pulled over a white Cadillac driven by 19-year-old John Artis with Carter, the car's owner, in the front seat.
Carter was well known to the Paterson police. As a child, he had been sent to reform school for throwing a bottle at a man's head; as an adult, he had served several prison terms for beatings and purse snatchings. Then, once his career as a boxer took off and he started to pick up the black nationalist rhetoric of the time, the brash middleweight began to talk openly of the need for blacks to use guns if necessary to protect themselves from bigoted white cops and judges.
The initial evidence from the Lafayette shootings did not point to Carter. Although he and Artis were brought to the bloody scene and later to a hospital where one of the victims was still conscious, various witnesses declined to identify them as the shooters. Their own stories--that Carter was merely giving Artis a lift home before heading to a meeting with his sparring partner--were supported by lie detector tests. The guns were never found.
But several months later, Paterson police claimed to have turned up two petty thieves who had been staking out a nearby building when they saw Carter and Artis flee the bar. Although their testimony had won them immunity from prosecution on burglary charges, it apparently was credible enough for the all-white jury to convict Carter and Artis of the killings. Both received life sentences.
Artis would become a model prisoner and win parole in 15 years, but Carter proudly and stubbornly resisted accommodation to prison life. He refused to wear prison clothes, eat prison food or take a prison job, winning himself long and repeated stays in solitary confinement. He slept during the day, and at night he read law books to help with his appeal and tapped out an eloquent and angry biography, "The Sixteenth Round." He insisted that guards and other inmates call him Mr. Carter, and out of some mixture of respect and fear, they did.
In the racially charged, protest-driven politics of the early 1970s, Carter became a folk hero for the radical chic. His cause was taken up by the likes of Burt Reynolds, Roberta Flack, Stevie Wonder, Ed Koch, Jesse Jackson, Norman Mailer, Jimmy Breslin, Walt Frazier, Bill Bradley, Candice Bergen and Bob Dylan. There was a benefit concert at Madison Square Garden, marches on the governor's office in Trenton, interviews on national television.
Finally, after Alfred Bello, one of the two thieves, recanted his story in an interview with the New York Times, Carter and Artis were granted a new trial in March, 1976. Muhammad Ali showed up to post bail.
But by the time the second trial rolled around, police had pressured Bello to recant on his recantation. And prosecutors, desperate to provide a motive for the killing, played the race card, asserting without offering much proof that the Lafayette Grill murders were revenge for the killing of a black bar owner in Paterson six hours before. With Carter's history of inflammatory racial rhetoric, the jury apparently was open to the prosecution theory. He and Artis were convicted a second time.
That conviction broke Carter's resolve. Back in his barren cell, he cut off all communication with his wife and children from his first marriage, his supporters and even his New York attorneys, who continued to push his appeals even without compensation. He threw away all of his law books and began reading philosophy. His diet consisted of one can of soup heated up every three days with an electric coil. Because of a botched prison surgery, he lost the sight in one eye.
But one day in 1980, Carter decided to open one of the many letters he usually let pile up in the cell unanswered. It was from a 17-year-old black teenager, Lesra Martin, in Toronto. Martin had picked up "The Sixteenth Round" at a library book sale and was so inspired by it that he wanted to thank Carter.
Martin had grown up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant, desperately poor and, until that point, functionally illiterate. That summer, he'd been adopted, in effect, by a group of lefty University of Toronto graduates who were as impressed with his wit and intelligence as they were appalled by the ghetto conditions in which his family lived. With his parents' permission, he moved into the Canadians' group house in a tony Toronto neighborhood and began to get daily tutoring. "The Sixteenth Round" was the first book he had ever read and his letter to Carter the first he had ever written.
"That book, 'The Sixteenth Round,' I threw that book out over the prison wall hoping that somebody would see its message bobbing on the ocean of life, pick it up and come rescue me," Carter recalls. "And Lesra Martin did just that."
Carter's response led to more correspondence, regular phone calls and then visits--not just from Martin but from four other members of the commune: Gus Sinclair, a Vietnam protester who gave money to American draft dodgers; Lisa Peters, a tough woman who had run away from home as a teenager and grew up on the streets of Toronto; Terry Swinton, whose father was the president of Encyclopaedia Britannica International, a product of Toronto's wealthiest neighborhood and an alumnus of its most prestigious private school; and Sam Chaiton, whose parents were survivors of the Nazi concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen. Carter's plight appealed directly to their leftist politics, their anti-American bias and their determination to help stamp out racism and injustice in the world. And their genuine interest in Carter rekindled in him not only the will to live, but the determination to get out of prison.
By 1983, in fact, Carter had become so emotionally entwined with the members of the commune, and his cause was such a focus of their activities, that Peters, Chaiton and Swinton moved to an apartment 20 minutes from the prison to work full time on his legal appeals. Martin, now enrolled at the University of Toronto, often flew down on weekends.
"We were dubious at first," recalls Myron Beldock, Carter's lead attorney, of the first meeting with the Canadians. "We had a hard enough job as it was, with no resources, and when these bunch of amateurs showed up one day at our office, we thought it would be a waste of time."
As it happened, the Canadians turned out to be terrific at organizing the mass of material associated with a case that had dragged through the courts for more than 15 years, tracking down leads and turning up new evidence and witnesses. In time, they were even drafting sections of legal briefs.
"The Canadians did an enormous amount for Rubin psychologically," says Leon Friedman, a Hofstra University law professor who was also part of the defense team. "What was decisive for me was that these guys came down and devoted several years of their life to this case. If they could do that, then we lawyers had to up our commitment. And we did."
When Sarokin finally issued his decision on Nov. 7, 1985, the value of the Canadians' contribution was confirmed.
"The extensive record clearly demonstrates that [Carter's and Artis's] convictions were predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, concealment rather than disclosure," Sarokin wrote. He called the police threatening of witnesses and concealing of evidence, and the prosecution appeals to racial prejudice, violations of the Constitution "as heinous as the crimes for which these petitioners were tried and convicted."
Bonding and Uncoupling
While the Hollywood version of "Hurricane" ends with Carter drinking in the sunshine and vindication on the courthouse steps, the real-life story turned out to be a good deal more complicated. Carter still had to wrestle with the demons he had brought with him to prison and those he had accumulated during his 19 years behind bars.
He joined the Canadian group home--first in Mount Kisco, N.Y., while the prosecutors pursued an unsuccessful appeal of Sarokin's decision, then over the border in King City, Ontario. In many ways, the halfway house in the horse country north of Toronto was perfect for Carter, who needed help with even the most routine tasks of daily life. He came face to face with his alcoholism, which had begun before his conviction and was nurtured over the years by prison moonshine. With his release, a platonic love affair with Peters also quickly developed into something else.
But in time, Carter came to view the house--with its strict rules against alcohol and cigarettes, its uncompromising communalism and its unabashed insularity--as something of a new prison. He began to resent the fact that much of the group's current income came from selling his story, as if he were some sort of "trophy horse," as he put it to biographer Hirsch. And the relationship with the strong-willed Peters, always tempestuous, turned even more so almost immediately after they decided to marry.
Carter stormed out of the house for the last time in 1994, showing up with his bags at Lesra Martin's studio apartment in Toronto. Within a few months, even that filial arrangement broke down after Martin, also struggling to figure out who he was and what he wanted to be, announced his intention to resume law school at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
"It was time for me to go out for me," Carter explains, making clear the break was his decision. "I just left. There was no argument, no animus. I loved those people--they committed to me when no one else would. I owed them a big debt. And when I repaid it, I left. I needed to be captain of my own ship again."
It is a measure of their estrangement that at the special opening of the movie in Toronto last week, Carter and the Canadians sat three rows away from each other and never exchanged a word.
While Carter was loosening his bonds with one group of Canadians, however, he was forging new ones with others. In 1991 John Ketchum, a hustling television producer in Vancouver, put down $100,000 in family money to option the movie rights to "Lazarus and the Hurricane," which had just been published in Canada (no U.S. publishers were interested).
With the contract in hand, Ketchum headed for Hollywood, beginning a frustrating seven-year search for a director and funding that eventually ended with Canadian-born Norman Jewison and Seagram's Universal pictures, now controlled by Montreal's Bronfman family. All the while, the script went through 27 drafts, each requiring Carter's approval.
"I would not allow this movie to be Hollywoodized, to be sensationalized," Carter says. "In the United States, there are not many images projected of black people in a dignified manner, and I wouldn't allow my image to be portrayed in an undignified manner. So I threatened to close it down four or five times."
As the start of shooting approached, Carter spent time with Denzel Washington, traveling on the actor's private jet from Toronto to New York and California and then back to Toronto, talking about his life and taking the measure of the man who would portray him.
"I remember after one particularly intense conversation, we went around the corner for lunch," recalls Carter. "After the meal, I excused myself and went to the restroom. And when I was heading back, I found Denzel in the foyer just staring at himself in the mirror. I thought he wanted to be alone, so I went right by. And when he came back to the table, he looked different to me somehow, although I couldn't put my finger on it. And the more we talked, the more I began to like him. It was a real emotional surge. I liked the way he moved, his vocabulary. I like his tenacity. I like his stridency. I loved his laughter. . . . And then it hit me like a double left hook to the jaw: When I had seen him at the mirror, he was clearing his canvas, so to speak. From that moment on, he was giving me back to me--and I was loving what I saw."
Even now, there are unmistakable traces of the old Rubin Carter in his recitation--the boastful, egotistical, cocky Carter of his middleweight days, sparring now with words instead of his fists. Still the dandy, he proudly shows off his updated wardrobe to a reporter. Outside, the white, monogrammed Cadillac has been traded in for a vintage blue Mercedes-Benz.
And like the Carter of Paterson, N.J., the Carter of Toronto largely views the United States through the dark prism of race, which explains why he refuses to ever set foot in New Jersey again and why he has applied for Canadian citizenship.
"When my son back in New Jersey threatened to burn down his girlfriend's house last year, he was put in jail for three months and fined $50,000. But when the grandson of one of the victims of the Lafayette bar murder told a television interviewer that Rubin Carter and John Artis should be hunted down and shot, nothing was done about it. Why is that grandson not in jail as they put my son in jail? I'll tell you why--because that's the way it's always been in the United States: There's a white standard and a black standard.
"The authorities in the United States don't need a reason to do what they do to black people," he continues, leaning into the conversation, his voice nearing a whisper. "They just need an opportunity--and I don't want to give them another opportunity."
These days, Carter has a new girlfriend--a 27-year-old South Carolina woman he says he met "in heaven" (actually, it was while delivering a motivational speech to a group of Subway sandwich franchisees in Reno, Nev.). He talks frequently with Artis, who now counsels youthful offenders in Norfolk, Va. And he has reestablished relations with Lesra Martin, who, after completing law school, was sworn in as a prosecutor in Kamloops, British Columbia, with Rubin "Hurricane" Carter watching proudly from the audience. The freshly minted "crown attorney" recently tried his first murder case, winning a guilty verdict.
"I am in a unique position to make sure that wrongful convictions don't happen," Martin says of his seemingly incongruous career choice. "As Rubin will tell you, it's easier to stop one before it happens than to overturn it afterwards."
CAPTION: Rubin Carter in 1963: The boxer's left hook earned him his nickname.
CAPTION: Convicted of a triple murder, Carter spent 19 years in prison.
CAPTION: Rubin Carter on "The Hurricane": "I would not allow this movie to be Hollywoodized."
CAPTION: This belt is inscribed with Carter's honorary boxing champion title.
CAPTION: In the United States, "There's a white standard and a black standard" of justice, Rubin Carter says. That stance made him a cause celebre to the radical chic when he was in prison in the 1960s and '70s.