U.S. News

04.21.14

‘Hurricane’ Carter Was Wrongly Convicted, But He Wasn’t Innocent

Following his death on Sunday, there’s been a rash response to the famed boxer’s life—both pre and post prison—all of which poses the question: Was he really ‘all love’?

“This man right here is love. He’s all love,” announced Denzel Washington while swaddling his Best Actor gong at the Golden Globes in 2000. The man of love, former boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who died yesterday at 76, rubbed his hands nervously, managing a meek smile as Washington spoke while patting him on the back.

How could one dispute Denzel’s characterization? This paragon of love, who once beat people up for a living, had long since transformed a life of violence, including a 19-year spell in prison, into a crusade for justice, prompting Washington’s award-winning Hollywood hagiography of a man falsely accused and falsely convicted by a corrupt and racist system. But Carter’s past wasn’t simply a story of love triumphing over hate; there were messy details his supporters, screenwriters, and obituarists elided.

In 1964, a Saturday Evening Post profile of the up-and-coming fighter reported that “society had [already] confined [Carter] for a total of 10 years for crimes of violence.” The Newark Star-Ledger, his hometown newspaper, later explained that “he was sent to…reformatory for breaking a bottle over the head of a man from whom he stole a wristwatch and $55.” He confessed to the Post in 1964 that “my partner and me…used to get up and put our guns in our pockets like you put your wallet in your pocket. Then we go out in the streets and start fighting—anybody, everybody. We used to shoot at folks.” He bragged in the same interview that he had once knocked out an uncooperative horse with a single punch. (Bob Dylan sang that Carter wanted nothing more than to go “where the trout streams flow and the air is nice, and ride a horse along a trail,” while failing to mention his penchant for equine assault).

But it was in 1966 when Carter, along with an accomplice, was accused—and later convicted by a jury—of a gruesome triple murder in Paterson, N.J. After a campaign to establish his innocence was promoted by supporters like Muhammad Ali, Carter was paroled in 1976 and granted a new trial, a brief spell of freedom during which he knocked out a 112-pound woman running his “free Rubin” support committee. As she told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2000, “I didn’t see it coming. I felt everything getting dark. I remember praying to Allah, ‘Please help me,’ and apparently Allah rolled me over, and he kicked me in the back instead of kicking my guts out. Allah saved my life.”

The second jury upheld his conviction.

So the “Hurricane” was not always a dealer of love. It was something he managed only after his release from prison, to which he was confined, according to Dylan, “for something he never done.” It was that song from 1975, a brilliant, 8-plus minute attack on Carter’s persecutors and police prosecutors, that helped push the case from the ghetto of radical media into the public  consciousness. Almost all of the detail was wrong, but it’s still the only detail anyone remembers.

Most readers understand that historical films routinely and radically transform complicated and nuanced historical narratives into simple parables.

When Carter’s death was confirmed on Sunday by John Artis, the man tried and convicted as his accomplice in the Paterson shootings, the internet offered encomiums, fulsome Twitter RIPs, and broad condemnations of the criminal justice system (the last one richly deserved). My phone buzzed with pushed updates from the Wall Street Journal, BBC News, and New York Times announcing his passing. Mike Tyson, another boxer who spent time behind bars (exiting humbled and chastened, with an image of genocidal maniac Mao Tse-Tung tattooed on his stomach), tweeted “we a lost a great man today, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer who was wrongfully accused and became a symbol for racial injustice. RIP.”

I have no doubt that Paterson, N.J., was stuffed to the gills with racists in 1966, but I still have suspicions that Hurricane’s versions of events and the ubiquitous media claim that he was “wrongly” convicted isn’t exactly true.

To be clear, Denzel Washington’s film version of Carter’s life is so fanciful that a contemporaneous New York Times account catalogued the “contorted” history, the “major fabrication” of certain events, and the elision of various uncomfortable details surrounding the case. Vaunted lefty journalist Jack Newfield complained that “I knew Rubin Carter, attended his fights, covered his retrial, and I didn’t see much reality on the screen,” while also stressing that the judge who vacated Carter and Artis’s two convictions did “not say they were innocent, only that their rights were trampled on.” In 2000, another New York Times writer reminded readers that “Mr. Carter was never exonerated; he was released in 1985 when a federal judge ruled there had been procedural errors during the second trial, and prosecutors decided not to try him a third time.”

This distinction is important—and is one that rightfully liberated Carter from prison—but it created a “wrongful” conviction of procedure, not of evidence. Cal Deal, who covered the trial for the Herald News, a local paper serving Paterson, New Jersey, has amassed a vast online archive detailing the case against Carter, concluding that the two juries got it right.

Perhaps this is why Bob Dylan hasn’t performed “Hurricane” live since a 1976 benefit concert for Carter. Princeton professor and Dylanologist Sean Wilentz points out in his terrific 2010 book Bob Dylan in America, the singer “had a long since abandoned” Carter when he was finally released from prison in 1985, while noting the “simple sincerity” of the protest song, one that “easily (perhaps too easily)” trusted the boxer’s version of events.

Unfortunately, many skeptical accounts of Carter’s story exist in the gutters and fetid swamps of the internet, promoted by crackpots with far more sinister concerns than Hollywood’s version of the truth. And I suspect most readers understand that historical films routinely and radically transform complicated and nuanced historical narratives into simple parables. And while viewers who believe “Hurricane” should be treated as reliable history are probably beyond help (just have a look at Twitter to see the effect Washington’s portrayal had on Carter’s reputation), Hollywood is happy to assist in leading them astray with that slippery phrase based on a true story.

By almost all accounts, Carter led an exemplary life upon leaving prison, agitating for the wrongfully convicted while carefully curating the story of his past. And while it’s impossible to know if he pulled the trigger on three innocents that night in 1966, it’s important to remember that his case wasn’t an obvious case of injustice. And Carter wasn’t always all love.