Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter (left) and Washington, D.C., attorney James H. Schropp (John Council)
Covering the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit for Texas Lawyer is the sweetest of all legal reporting jobs because it requires travel to New Orleans, a town known both for its world-class food and its federal appellate judges, who regularly turn Texas law upside down.
That job is how I came to meet Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in 2003 at the Fifth Circuit’s John Minor Wisdom Courthouse.
Carter, a former professional boxer who was wrongly accused of a New Jersey murder, spent 19 years in prison and was subsequently freed. He became the subject of a book, a Bob Dylan song and a 1999 film, “The Hurricane,” starring Denzel Washington. Carter died on April 20 from prostate cancer in Toronto at the age of 76.
The song and the movie made Carter’s name familiar to many in the United States. He spent the last years of his life advocating for prisoners he felt were wrongly convicted by traveling the United States and speaking out on behalf of the convicts and their attorneys.
And that’s why a nattily dressed Carter was sitting in a near-empty Fifth Circuit courtroom in January 2003, as four gray-suited, big-firm lawyers argued that Max Alexander Soffar, who was sentenced to death for a Houston triple homicide, was innocent.
Carter had traveled to New Orleans from Canada, where he served as executive director of the Toronto-based Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted. He was in New Orleans to watch lawyers from Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson argue pro bono on Soffar’s behalf that Soffar had made a false confession to the murders. It was the third time Fifth Circuit had heard argument in Soffar v. Cockrell. [See "More Than Meets the Eye," Texas Lawyer, Jan. 27, 2003, page 1.]
After the argument, Carter grabbed his felt hat and spoke to me on the courthouse steps about Soffar’s case and the lawyers who donated more than $1 million in legal fees to their client’s cause.
“I commend all of these lawyers for hanging in there, because that’s what we need,” Carter said as Soffar’s lawyers watched. “We’re here to support them.”
I snapped a picture of The Hurricane with a cheap, purple, point-and-shoot 35 mm camera. He’s standing next to James H. Schropp, one of the lawyers who argued Soffar’s case. The photo made the cover of Texas Lawyer that week.
Soffar’s conviction was later overturned, but a Harris County jury again sentenced him to death, and he remains on death row.