Rubin Carter photo via Wikipedia
Rubin Carter photo via Wikipedia

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter – a well-known boxer who was wrongly convicted on a triple murder charge and only won his release after spending 19 years in prison – has died in Toronto at the age of 76.

After his release from prison, Carter became the first executive director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, serving in the post between 1993 and 2004. He became highly respected as an activist for the wrongly convicted, and his work personally impacted many attorneys.

“Rubin, whom I had known and admired for more than 20 years, was an inspiration to many in what we now call the ‘innocence movement,’” Rob Warden, co-founder and executive director at Northwestern University’s Center on Wrongful Convictions, said in a statement to InsideCounsel on Monday.

“The facts of Rubin’s case, and the massive publicity surrounding it, including Bob Dylan’s ‘Hurricane’ [song] and the movie starring Denzel Washington, was immensely important in drawing public attention to the problem of wrongful convictions,” Warden recalled. “His case, and his work on behalf of the wrongfully convicted after his exoneration, also changed the media climate, which theretofore had been adamantly hostile to wrongful conviction claims, as had the judiciary.”

For those who have been wrongly convicted, Carter became a symbol, too, that convictions can be overturned.

“Every wrongfully convicted person loses precious years of life that can never be recovered, but Rubin’s life teaches that such a person can still live a meaningful, full, and long life despite those stolen years,” Karen L. Daniel, co-legal director at the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern’s School of Law, said in a statement to InsideCounsel. “After Rubin got out of prison, he could never reclaim the career he might have otherwise had, but he did not allow that to defeat him.  Rubin let his old dreams go and turned his talents and energies to another career—the cause of justice—and in that he found fulfillment and did a tremendous amount of good in the years that were left to him.”

His life’s experience impacted many attorneys, too, who chose to do pro bono work – in helping those who are wrongly convicted.

“Attorneys have a tremendous amount of privilege and power,” Daniel explained. “Applying those resources on behalf of a person who might otherwise have no voice in the justice system, and who might never be able to achieve justice without outside help, is our highest calling as attorneys.  It isn’t always easy and it isn’t always quick, as Rubin Carter’s case demonstrates, and success is never guaranteed—but every firm and every attorney would do well to view this type of person-to-person pro bono work as both a moral imperative and a source of tremendous personal satisfaction.”

Law school students, too, are touched when they hear about Carter’s experiences with the judicial system.

“Compelling stories are what drive interest in criminal justice reform.  There can hardly be a more compelling story than that of the ‘Hurricane,’ and we are fortunate that his story was communicated so eloquently to the general public by Bob Dylan in his famous song and by Norman Jewison and Denzel Washington in the movie version.  For many of our students, and for many others, the Hurricane’s story was their first exposure to a wrongful conviction,” Daniel said.  “Telling and retelling Rubin Carter’s life story—his unjust imprisonment as well as his subsequent work on behalf of others—is an important way to personalize both the catastrophic effects of wrongful convictions and the resilience of the human spirit.”

Looking back on Carter’s own experience, Warden notes “his exoneration involved recantations of … two witnesses.”

In fact, Warden noted that in Illinois Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez’s office “is pursuing a perjury indictment against a recanting witness, alleging nothing more than that there was a material contradiction between his trial testimony 30 years ago and his recent recantation. Such an indictment would not have been possible in Rubin’s case because New Jersey’s perjury statute, unlike the Illinois statute, requires that, in perjury prosecutions based on inconsistent statements, the statements must be made ‘within the period of the statute of limitations.’ That’s the federal law as well, and it’s what the law in every state should be.”

Also, in a blog post the AIDWYC said, “Rubin will be remembered by those at AIDWYC who were fortunate enough to have worked with him as a truly courageous man who fought tirelessly to free others who had suffered the same fate as he.  We are honoured that Rubin played a significant role in the history of our organization. We will continue to fight against wrongful convictions, a battle that Rubin valiantly fought until the day he died. Rest in peace Rubin, your battle is over but you will never be forgotten.”

Further reading:

Ban on Hiring Ex-Convicts Raises Title VII Concerns

Website owner accused of copyright infringement gets pro bono counsel

Tennessee lawyers complete 800,000 hours of pro bono per year