We were the lawyers for former middleweight boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and John Artis during the many years they fought against their unconstitutional convictions in the New Jersey courts for murder. They were falsely accused and twice convicted of killing three white people in a Paterson bar in 1966. Rubin’s unfortunate death compels us to reflect on the many defects in the criminal justice system that led to those convictions and that hindered their efforts to obtain justice.
First, the case shows the importance of federal courts issuing writs of habeas corpus to correct and overturn wrongful state convictions. Carter and Artis were finally released only because an extraordinary, thorough and uncompromising federal judge, H. Lee Sarokin, examined the entire 19-year record and concluded—contrary to the decision in the state courts—that the convictions were “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.”
The “racism” comment focused on the state’s claim that the killings of three white people in a local bar were a form of “racial revenge” by two black perpetrators because a white person had killed a black person in a Paterson bar earlier that day. However, there was no evidence that either Carter or Artis had ever shown any racial bitterness toward whites. The “concealment” comment focused on the fact that prosecutors had misused a lie-detector test of the only eyewitness and persuaded him to support their version of the facts. The state never informed the defense of these events.
State courts, many of whose judges are elected, are more likely to protect their police and prosecutors when challenges are made to state convictions. Federal judges, appointed for life, tend to be more interested in ensuring that justice is done. Unfortunately, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, passed in 1995, has greatly restricted the ability of federal courts to apply habeas corpus. The law provides strict time limits for state prisoners to file the necessary papers and requires federal judges to defer to findings made by state courts. If that law had been in effect 10 years earlier, Carter might never have been released.
Second, the case shows how ­easily innocent persons may be improperly convicted. Police often tend to find the easiest path to resolve a serious crime that greatly offends the local community. The more serious the crime, the more pressure there is to solve it. Witness the swift arrests of five black teens who were accused of raping the Central Park jogger in 1989. In Rubin’s case, the police found a possible eyewitness to the crime (who was near the crime scene after robbing a factory).
By offering a deal to that criminal, the authorities found what they were looking for: a way of closing the file on a serious crime. Too many criminal cases are resolved by finding some other criminal to testify against the person the police have targeted—a situation illustrated by the recent controversy involving New York Police Department Detective Louis Scarcella, who used the same eyewitness, a drug-addicted prostitute, to help convict a number of innocent defendants.
Third, once questions have arisen about the fairness of a conviction, prosecutors’ offices believe it is more important to protect their reputations rather than correct an injustice.
A recent study by University of Michigan Law School professor Samuel Gross estimates that between 1989 and 2003 as many as 29,000 innocent persons were convicted in the United States. As of Feb. 12, 2014, there have been 314 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. The reason for the original convictions in those cases was questionable eyewitness testimony, deals made with criminals or cellmates to testify against an accused, forcible persuasion of susceptible defendants to confess (as in the Central Park jogger case) and flawed forensic evidence.
Remedies to significantly cut down the number of wrongful convictions run the gambit. First, poor defendants need adequately funded and trained defense counsel who have full investigative and technical experts to support them. Second, police investigators must be trained to track down all leads rather than fixate on their prime suspect alone. Third, defense counsel must have access to both police investigators and witnesses pretrial. Fourth, states should consider whether it would be possible to create neutral agencies to investigate serious crimes when there is conflicting evidence, rather than having police and prosecutorial authorities control the entire process with the aim of convicting their prime suspect.
Rubin spent the last 29 years of his life, following his release from prison, fighting tenaciously on behalf of the wrongfully convicted. He was always our comrade-in-arms, working closely with his lawyers in our long struggle to undo his and Artis’ unjust convictions. He had an amazing will and intellect, and he spoke and wrote with a compelling cadence of a preacher’s son, which he was. He was a fierce and joyous person. He moved on from his case to fight for many others who were wrongfully convicted. The story of the Hurricane should continue to inspire all who are seeking to overcome police and prosecutorial misconduct. We were fortunate to have shared his cause and friendship.•