He was a local hero, lionized in and around Paterson, N.J., for his athletic prowess. So the shock was palpable when police charged John Artis with a triple homicide.
Artis and the man with him that June night in 1966 insisted from the start that they were not the two black men seen fleeing the Lafayette Bar and Grill after three white people were slain there. Though the pair passed lie detector tests, they ran up against a system that sanctioned tainted and suppressed evidence, and their two trials were stained by overt appeals to racial fears.
In May 1967, an all-white jury found Artis and his co-defendant guilty, sentencing them to three life terms each. More than two decades would pass before Artis could clear his reputation.
By now, most people have heard of middleweight boxing contender Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, whose name and story became the grist first for a Bob Dylan classic and now for a blockbuster movie starring Denzel Washington. But John Artis, Carter's co-defendant, remains all but forgotten, a bit player in the film and the lore.
Limos do not squire Artis around for talk show and book appearances. While Carter popped up in Beverly Hills for last week's Golden Globes, Artis was home in Portsmouth, where he lives with his wife in a modest town house and counsels troubled kids.
Carter attributes his exoneration, his life even, to Artis for rebuffing New Jersey officials who dangled freedom as a reward if only he would implicate Carter in the killings. Artis, says Carter, is "my hero."
John Artis nearly saw his life destroyed by his wrongful conviction. Through two trials, a Supreme Court appeal and a ravaging disease that ate at his limbs, he survived 15 years in prison, determined to emerge a better man than when he went in. Now 53, he has turned his harsh experiences into his life's work, using them as an example and a warning for the young offenders he advises.
"You would think John would be bitter by everything that happened to him," said Carlton Baker, his boss at the Norfolk Juvenile Detention Center, where Artis has worked for five years. "But he thinks it happened for a reason. This work is like a calling for him. He's on a mission to keep as many kids as he can out of trouble."
It is ironic that Artis wound up back in Portsmouth, a place his parents fled to give him a better life. Back then, in the early 1950s, Effingham Street was the line of demarcation: Blacks lived to the west, whites to the east. The only white child Artis knew was the son of the woman who employed his mother as a domestic.
His parents did not want their only son growing up in a segregated city, so when John was 8 the family headed to New Jersey.
There, the serious young choirboy and Boy Scout matured into a talented athlete. At Paterson Central High, he played basketball and football and ran hurdles. His mentor and track coach, an African American who went to the Olympics, often invited the team to his home in integrated Upper Montclair, grilling steaks in the yard. The message for the young men was clear: There is a better world than what's down the hill where most blacks then lived.
Artis, an honor student, won a four-year track scholarship but delayed his college plans when his mother died at age 44.
Just 19, he was beginning to emerge from his grief in June 1966 when he bumped into Carter late one night at a popular club, the Nightspot. Artis asked Carter, whom he knew casually, for a lift; Carter tossed him his keys and told Artis to drive. A short while later, they were stopped by police on the lookout for two black men in a white car seen driving away from the Lafayette Bar and Grill after the slayings. Three months later, Artis and Carter were charged with the killings.
During the six-week trial, two petty burglars fingered Carter and Artis as the Lafayette gunmen--a claim later recanted. Artis and Carter were convicted and shipped off to a state prison in Trenton. There, their lives took dramatically divergent paths. Carter, 30, refused to acknowledge the power officials held over him: He shunned prison food and clothing, seldom leaving his cell. By contrast, Artis, only 20, tried to fit in, ever the obedient son. He was determined to "follow the rules . . . and do whatever I had to do to get out of there. I told myself, 'It's just 14 football seasons, 14 basketball seasons, and I can make it.' "
He formed a prison track team that competed for cigarettes. He played football, resurrecting plays from Central High. He taught other inmates to read.
In 1971, Artis was incarcerated at Rahway when a prison riot changed his life. After watching one guard get stabbed and others' lives threatened, Artis--who remembers thinking, "This is not a good day to die"--demanded that four guards being held hostage be released to him. He led them to safety and then raced back to his cell, tearing his bed apart searching for an object to defend himself against the retaliation he was sure his fellow inmates would seek.
It never came. Instead, Artis was moved to newer, roomier quarters, and a year later, he was transferred to a minimum-security facility where he could attend business classes at nearby Glassboro State College.
In late 1975, with his earliest parole date still five years off, Artis was summoned from his cell and driven to his father's home in Paterson. Two aides to Gov. Brendan T. Byrne (D) were waiting. As Artis recalls it, one of the men bluntly offered a clemency deal: "If you say Rubin Carter did the killing and you were there, or knew about it, I guarantee you will be home in two weeks."
It was just before Christmas and Artis was sitting in his father's living room for the first time in eight years. The emotional tug was strong, but he wasn't dealing. "I won't sign anything that's untrue, and that's a lie," he said he responded.
"I told the guard, 'Let's go back to prison. They made me miss a day of school.' I said, 'See ya later, Dad.' When I got in the car, the guard said, 'Damn, Artis.' It was a 2 1/2-hour drive back . . . and we rode all the way in silence."
Even now, almost 25 years later, he grows animated thinking about his refusal to hand over Carter. "I will not sacrifice someone to help them gain their ends," he said, reliving the moment anew. "It means selling my soul to the Devil. How am I supposed to live and function if I help the police do that to a man who's innocent?"
To this day, some state officials and relatives of the victims believe the opposite, that Carter and Artis were the gunmen, that Carter pressured Artis to go along. "I feel sorry for John Artis," said Cal Deal, a former reporter in Passaic who maintains a Web site dedicated to refuting the men's innocence. "He seems like a nice, smart guy. I hope someday he will really open up."
In 1976, New Jersey's Supreme Court overturned the convictions, saying prosecutors had kept important evidence from the defense. With Muhammad Ali posting bail, Artis and Carter went free for nine months until a retrial resulted in another guilty verdict.
"That one hurt," Artis admitted. "The first time, I was scared. I didn't know where I was going. This time, I knew what I was going back to."
Behind bars again, the discipline Artis had developed his first 10 years in prison quickly evaporated. Sports, teaching, school--nothing engaged him. Salvation finally came in, of all things, a donated set of drums. Artis taught himself to play, the noise and the rhythm drowning out the present.
With things beginning to look up, Artis was dealt another blow: Buerger's disease, an incurable circulatory disorder that led to the amputation of some of his fingers and toes. He sued to get adequate medical care and was in a Newark hospital when the parole board called in December 1981.
Eleven days later, he was free.
His wife of one year, Dolly, was waiting. The two met during Artis's second trial when Dolly, a social worker with an office near the courthouse, stopped by out of curiosity. As she became convinced of his innocence, their friendship grew into a courtship. In 1980, they wed in prison.
On the outside now, a middle-aged man on probation, Artis dreamed of refereeing high school sports, but his notorious name carried too much baggage for that. Police shadowed him, he said, and he had trouble finding work.
More legal twists awaited. In 1985, a federal judge overturned Artis's and Carter's convictions, rebuking the prosecution for constitutional violations "as heinous as the crimes for which [the two men] were tried and convicted."
At Carter's release, Artis leaned over to hug him, whispering, "We made it. We made it."
Not quite, he hadn't.
The next year brought a drug charge. Having read that cocaine might lessen the pain of his disease, Artis began using the drug. It wasn't long before he was arrested and charged with conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine. Artis pleaded guilty; at sentencing the judge cited his 1967 murder conviction--even though it had been overturned--and gave him six years, saying Artis hadn't learned his lesson.
He was back in prison, then, when in 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the federal court's decision overturning the murder convictions. Two months later, on orders from the New Jersey Supreme Court, the judge in Artis's drug case directed that he be released; in an aside, he advised Artis to get out of Paterson.
Driving wasn't fast enough. He caught a plane to Portsmouth, where he began to reassemble his life. He's been back to Paterson just once, to bury his father.
In his work with youths, Artis deglamorizes the street myths of prison life, relating the gut fear of seeing one inmate stab another, and the unrelenting boredom of days that stretch into months and years. He shows the kids a paper on which he's recalculated his own prison time into months served (180), weeks (780), days, hours, minutes, even seconds (4.7 million). "I remind them I went in at 19 and got out when I was 35. I tell them there's no parole" in Virginia.
Baker, his supervisor, says the message packs a punch: "Their eyes get big, and they listen to him. They know they're getting the truth."
Like his long-ago track coach, Artis invites some of the kids to his home east of Effingham Street--the same area where his parents were once barred from living. The boys lounge on the green leather couch and listen to Artis play drums; sometimes he grills them steaks in the back yard.
"I tell them I got here with $450 in my pocket and a room in a rooming house," he said of his long road back. "One thing led to another, and here it is, it's mine. My effort is to show them you can have what you want, there's just no quick way."
Psychologist Adolph Brown III, who gave Artis his first counseling job 10 years ago, sees more to it than a desire to help troubled youths, as commendable as that may be. "I've tried to figure him out," Brown said. "I think what he does with children is a way to recapture his own youth that was stolen from him."
The circle is now complete.
For a time, Artis thought about suing the State of New Jersey for what it took from him. But, aside from never wanting to see the inside of a courtroom again, what would be the point?
"They couldn't pay me what I want," he said with a rueful chuckle. "Would $2 million or $3 million make it right? I want $200 billion for every year. I want $200 billion for every day.
"I won't ask them to determine what they think my life is worth. I've seen what they think it's worth--nothing."
CAPTION: Artis holds a photo of himself as a teenager. He was 19 when he was arrested in the 1966 triple slaying, 35 when he left prison. He and Carter were later exonerated.
CAPTION: John Artis, tried with Carter in a slaying case, is now a youth counselor in Portsmouth, Va.
CAPTION: John Artis next to his drums at home in Portsmouth. He found peace while teaching himself to play drums in prison.
CAPTION: Artis says that when officials asked him to implicate Carter, he said: "I won't sign anything that's untrue."