“THE HURRICANE” Rubin Carter, who passed away on Sunday, April 20, 2014 from prostate cancer at the age of 76, will forever be linked, yes with a formidable boxing career, but primarily with the murders of three people in a bar in Paterson, New Jersey.
Carter, immortalised in film and song as The Hurricane, was, along with his companion John Artis, convicted of the murders of James Oliver, Fred Nauyoks and Hazel Tanis in the Lafayette Bar and Grill at around 2.30am on June 17, 1966. Carter and Artis were jailed for life the following year. Both protested their innocence.
The popular theory at the time was that this was a racist slaying in response to the killing of a black bartender by a white racketeer the previous day. Carter and Artis were black, the victims in the bar white. Later it became plain the case against them was horribly flawed.
Eight years on, the two chief prosecution witnesses, Alfred Bello and Arthur Bradley, withdrew their statements, saying they had been pressed into naming Carter and Artis by the police. Bello and Bradley were hardly credible witnesses in the first place. Both convicted felons, they admitted they had been near the scene of the crime because they were planning to commit a burglary at a local factory.
Carter released an autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, while incarcerated in Rahway State Penitentiary. Bob Dylan wrote Hurricane and performed benefit concerts in Madison Square Garden, where Carter’s biggest fights had been held, and Muhammad Ali led a protest march in Trenton, New Jersey.
In March 1976 the convictions were overturned and a retrial ordered, but the celebrities melted away when a 61-year-old woman, Carolyn Kelley, who had campaigned for Carter’s release, claimed he had beaten her unconscious in a hotel room. Kelley’s claim seemed flimsy, Carter denied it and no charges were brought, but perhaps the damage had been done. When Bello changed his mind again and said his original statement was the truth, just before Christmas 1976 Carter and Artis were convicted of the murders for the second time.
Artis was paroled in 1981 but it was another four years before Judge H. Lee Sarokin ruled the convictions were based on “an appeal to racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure”, and Carter was released. Members of a close-knit Canadian commune, who had compiled the evidence to help free him, then took him back with them. He lived there for some years and carried out motivational talks, but when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2012, it was Artis who took on the task of caring for him.
Carter, from a family of seven children, was raised in Paterson. “I wasn’t dumb,” he said once. “Just hard to control.” That was perhaps an understatement. At 14 he was convicted of assault and sent to Jamesburg Home For Boys. He escaped and joined the US Army, served in Europe, but was eventually discharged before his time was up, and rearrested for the escape, after which he spent five months in jail. In 1957 he was locked up for mugging, among others, a middle-aged black woman. He pleaded guilty and spent four-and-a-half years behind bars.
When he emerged at the age of 24, he became a professional fighter. He had learned to box in the Army, with an alleged 51 wins in 56 bouts. His pro debut was in Annapolis, Maryland, in September 1961. Little more than a year later, this muscular, heavy-punching middleweight had destroyed former world title challenger Florentino Fernandez in 69 seconds at Madison Square Garden. “The Hurricane” was born.
He beat solid operators like Holly Mims and Gomeo Brennan on points, lost inside the distance for the only time in his life when Jose Gonzalez beat him on a cut, beat George Benton on one split decision, lost to Joey Archer on another, and then scored his highest profile victory when he blasted Emile Griffith to defeat in 133 seconds in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in December 1963. Griffith was down twice. Some called Rubin a middleweight Sonny Liston. He liked the comparison.
He outpointed future WBA heavyweight champion Jimmy Ellis and in December 1964 challenged Joey Giardello for the world middleweight title in Philadelphia. Giardello outjabbed him to take a clear unanimous decision. (Giardello would later sue the producers of the movie who encouraged the line that Carter was robbed by a racist verdict.).
Carter lost some momentum after that, perhaps because of the disappointment he felt at failing to win the championship, perhaps because he was always destined to have a relatively short spell at the top.
A later biographer, James Hirsch, said Carter was an alcoholic throughout his boxing career.
For a while, the trademark shaven head, moustache and beard, with his muscular physique, had helped him intimidate opponents, or at least make them more conservative, but gradually defeats began to become more frequent.
Luis Rodriguez, the former welterweight champion, outpointed him twice. He came to London to share the ring twice with the talented Liverpudlian, Harry Scott, at the Albert Hall. Carter won the first fight in the ninth, lost the second on points after putting Scott down. While he was in London there was an unseemly incident when a gun went off in his hotel room.
In May 1965 Carter took a pounding for 10 round s from Dick Tiger, the great Nigerian who held both the middleweight and light-heavyweight titles before dying young. Tiger knocked him down three times and Carter said: “It was the worst beating I took in my life, inside or outside the ring.”
He beat the former Olympian, Wilbert “Skeeter” McClure on a split decision and drew the rematch, and by the time he was convicted he had won only one of his last five fights. His final battle was a 10-round defeat by Juan Carlos Rivero in Santa Fe, Argentina, in August 1966. The justice system then closed his career at 27 wins in 40 contests, 19 inside, with 12 defeats and a draw.
At his best Carter was dynamic, exciting, a formidable puncher, but on his biggest night could not beat Giardello. In 1993 Jose Sulaiman gave him a WBC honorary belt and he was inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame but in the end his life was shaped, not by boxing, but by a flawed conviction that put him behind bars for almost two decades.