Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
January 12, 1988
Court upholds release of "Hurricane" Carter

The U.S. Supreme Court yesterday let stand a decision freeing Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, the former middleweight boxer whose conviction in a 1966 triple murder came to symbolize the racial tensions of the decade.

Carter, 50, was twice convicted of the crime. The court refused to reconsider a decision by a federal judge in Newark, N.J., that the second trial of Carter and a co-defendant was a "travesty," corrupted by allegations of racism and the prosecution's withholding of crucial information from defense attorneys.

Carter, whose first conviction for murdering three white patrons of a Paterson, N.J., tavern was also overturned, inspired singer Bob Dylan to write "The Ballad of Hurricane." Carter has been free since 1985 and lives in seclusion in North Jersey. He could not be reached for comment.

Myron Beldock, one of Carter's attorneys, said that Carter "cherishes his freedom and his privacy and is enjoying life at this moment more than he ever enjoyed it before."

Acting Passaic County Prosecutor John P. Goceljak said a decision to seek a third trial of Carter and his co-defendant, John Artis, would be made in several weeks after consultation with the state Attorney General's Office, which supervises county prosecutors.

"We had hoped that the Supreme Court would take the case," Goceljak said. "We thought we had a good issue and our appeal had merits. If you retry the case, you go back to ground zero."

Carter's defense attorneys said they doubted the prosecutor would seek a third trial because the key witness was discredited by appeals judges.

"We find it extremely difficult to conceive of a third trial at this date," Beldock said.

Should the prosecutor decide to drop the case, yesterday's court decision would end a legal epic in which Carter faced two trials, four hearings before the New Jersey Supreme Court and two appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. He served nearly 18 years in New Jersey prisons before his release in 1985.

Artis, 41, was paroled in 1981. He is serving a six-year sentence at Northern State Prison in Newark after pleading guilty to drug charges last year. His attorney, Robert Utsey, said the sentence is being appealed as too harsh and because the sentencing judge referred to Artis' involvement in the murder trials.

In 1974, Carter wrote an autobiography called The Sixteenth Round. In 1976, he became a popular cause. Dylan organized a benefit concert in the Houston Astrodome that featured performers Isaac Hayes, Stevie Wonder and Ringo Starr. Dylan and folk singer Joan Baez also staged a benefit concert in Madison Square Garden.

After Carter and Artis were convicted a second time in 1976 - this trial was the focus of yesterday's ruling - the celebrities who had championed the former boxer lost interest.

"They all disappeared," said Leon Friedman, a law professor at Hofstra University in New York who has a long history of civil liberties work. He and Carter's other attorneys said they had worked for the last decade without receiving compensation.

Carter was known for his intimidating scowl, a volatile temper and a swift left hook. He grew up in Clifton, N.J., where he was convicted of theft before he turned 10 years old. He was court-martialed by the Army for fighting with his superiors and later went to prison for robbery and assault.

He began his professional boxing career in 1961 and came into prominence when he knocked out welterweight champion Emile Griffith in the first round of a non-title bout in 1963. A year later, Carter lost a close fight with Joey Giardello for the world middleweight championship. After the defeat, his career declined, and he went to prison with a 27-12-1 record.

Carter and Artis were convicted of the June 17, 1966, murders of the bartender and two patrons at the Lafayette Bar and Grill, a bar in northwest Paterson frequented by a white clientele. Carter and Artis are black.

Carter and Artis were arrested the night of the shootings as they drove through Paterson in a white car that was similar to one described by witnesses at the Lafayette Grill. The two were returned to the scene, but they did not match witnesses' descriptions of the gunmen. They later passed lie-detector tests.

Still, Carter and Artis were arrested four months later and charged in the slayings. The prosecutors maintained that they had gone to the Lafayette Grill to seek revenge for a shooting that occurred earlier the same evening at another Paterson bar. In that incident, a black bartender, whose stepson was a friend of Carter's, was killed by a white man.

Carter and Artis were convicted in 1967, largely because of the testimony of two men who said they had seen Carter and Artis leave the bar with weapons.

The two witnesses later recanted, saying they had been bribed and coerced by police to testify against Carter and Artis. Carter and Artis were granted a new trial in 1976.

In the second trial, one of the two witnesses, Alfred Bello, reverted to his original story. Carter and Artis were convicted again.

A few weeks before Carter and Artis were again sentenced to life in prison, attorney Beldock telephoned the man who had conducted a lie-detector test of Bello.

"There were certain things that bothered us about the evidence," Beldock said yesterday.

The polygrapher revealed that Bello had said he was inside the bar when he passed the lie-detector test. But Bello had testified during the trial that he was outside the bar during the shooting - a key point in the prosecution's case.

Carter's attorneys based their appeal on the fact that prosecutors had not divulged the discrepancy in Bello's testimony.

"Bello didn't know what the truth was," said Beldock. "He had to be told by prosecutors."

The defense also said the government's allegations that Carter and Artis were motivated by racial revenge had "poisoned" the trial. The prosecution never introduced any evidence to support their contention that Carter and Artis were prejudiced against whites.

New Jersey appeals courts rejected the challenge by Carter and Artis. But in November 1985, U.S. District Judge H. Lee Sarokin in Newark overturned the convictions in a ruling that blasted the Passaic County prosecutors.

The suppressed report of Bello's lie-detector test was "crucial," Sarokin wrote. "Without that cracked and shaky pillar to support it, the balance of the government's case would probably come crashing down."

Sarokin also dismissed the prosecution's contention of a racist motive.

"Underlying the prosecutor's theory and summation is the insidious and repugnant argument that this heinous crime is to be understood and explained solely because the petitioners are black and the victims are white," Sarokin wrote. "Without that unacceptable assumption, the prosecution's theory of racial revenge becomes a thin thread of largely irrelevant evidence and impermissible evidence."

The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in August upheld Sarokin's ruling, although the appeals court did not comment on the racial-motivation theory. The U.S. Supreme Court, in refusing to hear the appeal yesterday, did not comment on the case.


Following is the chronology of events that led to yesterday's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court:

Oct. 15, 1966 - Boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, 29, and John Artis, 21, an unemployed laborer and sometime sparring partner of Carter's, are arrested in the June 17, 1966, slayings of a bartender and two patrons of the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, N.J. The two were released after questioning.

Nov. 30, 1966 - A Passaic County grand jury indicts Carter and Artis on murder charges.

May 26, 1967 - After a 31-day trial before Passaic County Court Judge Samuel A. Larner, during which Alfred Bello and Arthur Bradley said they had seen Carter and Artis carrying a shotgun after the shootings, Carter and Artis are found guilty of first-degree murder.

June 29, 1967 - Carter is sentenced to two consecutive life terms and one concurrent life term, meaning he will have to serve at least 29 years in prison before being eligible for parole. Artis draws three concurrent life terms.

Oct. 31, 1974 - Bello and Bradley recant their testimony. Bradley, an ex convict, says that he lied so that authorities might "go easy" on him in an unrelated case.

Dec. 11, 1974 - Larner, now a Superior Court judge, denies bids by Carter and Artis for a new trial. Carter reasserts that he is not guilty and vows that he will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

March 17, 1976 - The New Jersey Supreme Court overturns the convictions of Carter and Artis and orders a new trial. The court ruled that the two had not received a fair trial because the prosecution withheld from defense attorneys information about promises of leniency for Bradley and Bello.

Oct. 12, 1976 - Carter, supported by numerous celebrities, goes on trial a second time, before Superior Court Judge William Marchese in Jersey City. Bello changes his testimony again and says he saw Carter leaving the bar after the shootings.

Dec. 21, 1976 - Carter and Artis are convicted again. They both are later sentenced to three life terms. Carter again must serve two of them consecutively.

May 25, 1978 - Carter and Artis appeal their convictions, contending that the prosecution withheld evidence during their second trial and "poisoned" the proceedings by contending that the killings were inspired by racial revenge.

Oct. 22, 1979 - The Appellate Division of New Jersey Superior Court upholds Carter's and Artis' convictions.

Dec. 21, 1981 - Artis is paroled from Rahway State Prison.

Aug. 17, 1982 - A divided state Supreme Court rejects the defendants' appeals.

July 1, 1985 - The Appellate Division of Superior Court, in a 3-0 decision, also rejects Carter's and Artis' appeals.

Nov. 8, 1985 - Federal Judge H. Lee Sarokin overturns the convictions, ruling that prosecutors denied Carter and Artis their civil rights by withholding evidence and by injecting unsubstantiated claims of a racial motive in the trial. Carter is released from prison.

Aug. 21, 1987 - The Third U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejects the Passaic County prosecutor's challenge to Sarokin's decision. The prosecutor appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. home page   
Recent news
  | Africa coverage  |  Archives  |  Afghanistan coverage  |  E-mail from Africa  |  Magazine articles | Photographs  |  Bio 
African Odyssey
  |  Apartheid's Secrets  |  Democracy's Promises  |  The Forgotten Wars  |  Rwanda: Aftermath of Genocide

Copyright 2001-2006 Andrew Maykuth