Exonerated of triple murder in 1985 and with all of New Jersey’s legal avenues closed three years later, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter – with assistance from a group of Canadians who were instrumental in securing his freedom – moved to Canada for a fresh start in life.
“I love to be where people respect each other and are tolerant,” he said at the time. “Canada just seems to suit me fine.”
A tireless advocate for the wrongfully convicted in the last 26 years, Carter succumbed to prostate cancer in his west Toronto home last Sunday. He was 76.
Ken Klonsky, who collaborated with Carter on his last book, Eye of the Hurricane: My Path from Darkness to Freedom, released in January 2011, said the former world middleweight boxing contender was the world’s single most known and respected advocate for the wrongly convicted.
“I can say that without hyperbole,” said the former Toronto teacher and writer who resides in Vancouver. “He shaped my whole life’s work since I met him in 2001. Not only did I become involved with wrongly convicted prisoners, but much of what I wrote as a professional writer during that time was about wrongful convictions as well. I will remember him as a passionate advocate, a very demanding person and a humorous and fierce individual with a slew of contradictions that you might expect from a man who spent 10 years in solitary confinement in brutal conditions.”
In December 1993, Carter – who narrowly escaped the electric chair – and Joyce Milgaard – the mother of David Milgaard who was released and compensated after spending 23 years in prison for a murder he did not commit – helped launch the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC).
“Without Rubin and all the work he did, I don’t know if David would have made it out of prison,” said Joyce Milgaard from her Manitoba home. “He was a wonderful man.”
Comprising mainly lawyers, the Toronto-based organization was formed to provide support to the wrongly convicted, raise public consciousness on issues relating to wrongful convictions and help reform the legal system.
“One instance of wrongful conviction is one too many,” Carter said at the launch. “No one should have to go through what David and Rubin Carter went through.”
Guy Paul Morin, who was wrongly convicted of the murder and rape of nine-year-old Christine Jessop in 1984, was the first case that AIDWYC adopted. He was cleared by DNA evidence in 1995.
The organization’s second case involved Jamaican-born Donzel Young who always maintained he was a peacemaker and not a murderer. The father of three was fatally stabbed in a federal penitentiary in March 1995 while trying to break up a fight.
That case haunted Carter until his death because AIDWYC did not get Young’s wrongful conviction overturned even though they had evidence to prove his innocence.
Young was implicated in a series of heinous crimes in the city that led to his double murder conviction. First, Barrington Parker was murdered. Then drug dealers Hugh Pryce and Douglas Barr were killed in a revenge slaying in the presence of Young in September 1989. Evidence was produced pointing to another man as the triggerman in the double slayings, but he was murdered before Young’s trial.
“We went to Jamaica and found witnesses and evidence pointing to Donzel’s innocence,” Carter told Share three years ago. “His death hurt me badly and we just forgot about the case after he was gone. We did not follow through and free him posthumously which was my intention.”
American Steven Crawford will be eternally grateful to Carter and AIDWYC for adopting his case.
Crawford, who came to Toronto to publicly thank them at an Innocence Behind Bars conference in November 2002 that featured late lawyer Johnnie Cochran as the keynote speaker, was accused of murdering his neighbour and best friend whose body was found in September 1970 under a Chevy in Crawford’s garage. Just 14 at the time, he was arrested and charged two years later.
After the murder, police lifted several finger and palm prints from the car under which Mitchell’s body was found. Police also accumulated fingerprints from neighbourhood residents, including Crawford’s. They and forensic experts testified that blood was found only along the print ridges and not in the grooves which meant fresh blood was on Crawford’s hand when he touched the car.
It was not until 2001 – 23 years later after his third conviction – that Crawford received the break he was waiting for when some inquisitive youths rummaging through garbage found a briefcase in a dumpster. While seated at a roadside curb trying to pry it open, a police officer drove by and took it away from them. To determine ownership, he opened the case and found important documents relating to Crawford’s prosecution.
The briefcase belonged to one of the lead investigators in Crawford’s case. Following his death, his family discarded most of the paperwork from his cases, including those of Crawford. Among the retrieved contents was a copy of laboratory notes from Crawford’s case that had never been disclosed to the defence. When compared against the notes on file, it was evident they had been altered.
Based on the discovery of this evidence, Crawford was released in June 2001 from a Pennsylvania prison on US$1 bail. Prosecutors agreed not to oppose a defence request for a new trial in light of the uncovered documents showing that key forensic evidence in his case had been buried. He was finally exonerated on July 16, 2002 after the prosecutor decided not to proceed with a fourth trial.
Carter left his position as AIDWYC’s executive director in August 2004 after Susan MacLean, one of Morin’s original prosecutors, was appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice. She maintained that Morin was guilty even though DNA absolved him.
“I had a problem when Susan was elevated, but the board did not agree with me,” Carter said in 2011. “AIDWYC was created to help free innocent people and to hold accountable those who deliberately perpetrate and those who benefit from wrongful convictions. In my opinion, she was being rewarded for participating in the conviction of an innocent person.”
A decade ago, Carter founded Innocence International which adopted David McCallum III as its first case. He has been incarcerated for the last 29 years for a murder his lawyers allege he confessed to under duress.
Last February, a bedridden Carter pleaded with Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson to free McCallum.
“I am now quite literally on my deathbed and am making my final wish to those with the legal authority to act,” said Carter, who lost his personal possessions when an electrical fire destroyed his midtown Toronto home in October 2004. “Knowing what I do, I am certain that when the facts are brought to light, Thompson will recommend his immediate release.”
McCallum was raised in the same Brooklyn neighbourhood – Bushwick – where Lesra Martin was living at the time when he ran into Canadians Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, who were part of an entrepreneurial commune.
Touched by the youth’s good nature and curiosity, the Canadians brought the then functionally illiterate 15-year-old to their Toronto home to acquire an education and social skills. Shortly after his arrival in the city, Martin and his new friends were at the Toronto Public Library’s Palmerston branch rummaging through used books on sale when one particular paperback caught the teenager’s attention.
It was The Sixteenth Round; From Number One Contender to #45472 which detailed Carter’s gripping story. Martin was so moved by the book for which the Canadians paid 25 cents that he wrote to Carter who replied and a friendship emerged that led the Canadians to work assiduously to free Carter. Their private and thorough investigation led to his exoneration of all charges.
“Rubin had a huge impact on the issue of wrongful conviction,” said Martin who is a lawyer in British Columbia. “That legacy is something he has earned and deserves.”
Martin said he wasn’t surprised Carter became withdrawn after he fell ill.
“He spent many years in solitary confinement when he was fighting for his life,” Martin said. “Fighting for his life while facing death, he did what he knew best in a solitary way. I understood what he was doing.”
Paulene Harvey was among the group of Canadians that helped secure Carter’s release from prison.
“I was happy to be part of that fight.” she said. “Even though he struggled to assimilate into society after his release, he lived a very productive life and became a champion for the wrongly convicted.”
As a prize fighter, Carter unsuccessfully attempted to lift the world middleweight boxing crown, losing to Joey Giardello in Philadelphia in 1964. Two years later, he was in the biggest fight of his life after he and promising track star John Artis, who was 19 at the time, were arrested and charged for a triple murder in a New Jersey bar.
They were convicted in 1967 by an all-White jury and sentenced to triple life terms even though they passed lie detector tests and a victim of the shooting swore that they were not the gunmen.
Artis and Carter became lifelong friends and Artis moved from his Virginia home to Toronto two years ago to be Carter’s caregiver.
“He was my best and closest friend,” said Artis who offered to drive Carter home on the night of the Lafayette murders.
A close friend of the late Malcolm X and Steve Biko, who assisted him with his road work while he was in Johannesburg in 1966 for a bout against Joe “Axe Killer” Ngidi, Carter was awarded an honorary championship belt in 1993 and was later inducted into the New Jersey Boxing Hall of Fame.
The Grade Eight reform school dropout who spent seven years in a youth detention centre was also the recipient of honorary doctorates from Australia’s Griffith University and York University.
Immortalized in Bob Dylan’s classic ballad – Hurricane – which was the title of a 1999 biographical film starring Denzel Washington that depicts Carter’s life in prison and the part the Canadians played in his freedom, Carter served in the U.S. Army and overcame a debilitating stammer to become a dynamic motivational speaker who testified before the United States Congress on the need for preserving federal review of state court convictions and the United Nations General Assembly. He also frequently lectured at bar associations, universities and law and high schools throughout the world.
“Rubin was such an oversized person even though he came in a very compact body,” said Chaiton. “He was the personification of the word charisma and he just had a way of exuding this amazing energy that inspired people to do the right thing. He was an incredible force of justice and also a real living symbol for the idea that was real and that was an underdog could triumph and that justice in this world was possible to obtain as long as one never gave up.”
Carter, who did not want a funeral, was cremated hours after his death.