Special Report

Hurricane Carter Exonerated Again… and Again

Unlock the cell door and throw away the evidence.

By 4.30.14

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Rubin “Hurricane” Carter died at the age of 76 two weeks ago and immediately the encomiums began again — “wrongly convicted of a crime he didn’t commit,” “could have been champion,” “victim of racial injustice,” etc., etc.

I wasn’t even going to bother with this — what else do you expect of the New York Times? — but then Sports Illustrated arrived:

Before he spend 19 years in prison on a wrongful murder conviction, before he was the subject of a Bob Dylan hit and a Denzel Washington biopic, before he was a symbol of the ways racial injustice can corrupt the legal system…

… and so on and so on.

Twenty-nine years ago (could it be that long?), in the days when The American Spectator had just moved to the D.C. area from its Bloomington home, I wrote an article detailing exactly what had happened in Hurricane Carter’s two convictions for the murder of three people in a notoriously “redneck” bar in Paterson, N.J. in 1966. I had forgotten most of the details. When I went back and read the story, I was astonished to rediscover how overwhelming the case against Carter had been before it was overturned by a single, purposeful federal judge in 1985. (You can read the article here.)

As a young reporter on the Bergen Record in 1975, I had sat around as my fellow journalists literally fell over each other vying to write stories proclaiming what a grave injustice had been done to Carter in his first conviction in 1967. What was astonishing to everyone was that when the case went back to trail a second time in 1976, the prosecution was able to present an even more powerful case. At the first trial, Carter was a widely respected — and highly feared — celebrity in Paterson’s black community. By 1976, however, much of this had faded and numerous witnesses turned against him. In the end, few people who were familiar with the case harbored any doubt that Carter was indeed guilty.

Here’s how it all happened:

  • On June 17, 1966, someone shot up a notorious “redneck” bar on the fringes of the black neighborhood in Paterson, New Jersey, killing three people.
  • A woman in an upstairs apartment heard the shots, looked out the window, and saw two black men jump into a very distinctive white car with “butterfly” taillights and New York license plates and head off.
  • A few minutes later, an officer sitting in a patrol car, having just heard the report of a shooting but with no other details, saw a white car speeding down a main avenue at 2 a.m. He stopped it. Inside were Carter and a 22-year-old named John Artis. Because Carter was well known in Paterson — and because there was no reason to detain him — the officer let them go. He then drove to the scene of the shooting a few minutes later and heard the description of the getaway car. He now realized it was Carter’s vehicle. Several officers went back out on the streets and found it again. This time a search of the car turned up a shotgun shell and a bullet that matched the caliber of the ones used in the killing. When they brought the car back to the bar for identification, the woman who had seen it from the upstairs window not only recognized it, she became hysterical and tried to run away.

When the police had first arrived on the scene, they found a 22-year-old hoodlum named Albert Bello inside. Bello said he had been passing by when he heard shots and saw two black men with guns walk out of the bar. At first he thought they were police detectives but he had once met Carter in a reform school and recognized him. Realizing that something was wrong, he ran off, hiding in a nearby alley. After the car sped away, he went in the bar and found the dead bodies. He emptied the cash register, then called the police.

It turned out Bello had actually been acting as a lookout for another young hoodlum who was burglarizing a warehouse next door. Already a veteran of numerous brushes with the law, Bello had no liking for the police and refused to give them any more information. When word began circulating around Paterson that Bello had witnessed the shootings, however, he became worried that he would be knocked off as a potential witness. He now went to the police, told them he had recognized Carter, and asked for protection in exchange for his testimony. All he was granted, however, was a promise that if he ended up back in jail, he would be moved to another county where local prisoners would not come after him. Bello became the principal witness at the first trail.

Carter’s only defense was three alibi witnesses who said they had been with him at the time of the shooting. With so much material evidence weighing against him, he was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. Artis, the young sidekick who claimed he had only been offered a ride home that night, received one life sentence.

So things stood until 1974, when Carter received a $10,000 advance from Viking Publishes to tell his life story. His attorney immediately took the money and offered it to Bello to recant his testimony. Bello was back in jail again and angry because he hadn’t received a $10,000 reward for helping solve the crime, so he agreed. No one was particularly convinced by this and the appeal didn’t make much headway. But soon the celebrity brigades picked up the story and Bob Dylan recorded his famous song claiming that Carter would have been “champion of the world” if he hadn’t been robbed of it by a racist society. (In fact, Carter’s career was on the downhill. He had lost seven fights the previous year and slipped to #9 in the rankings.) A sympathetic New Jersey Supreme Court took all this under advisement and decided to overturn the conviction, not on Bello’s recantation but on a minor technicality.

And so it was back to the courtroom. Second trials are notoriously difficult to prosecute. Memories have faded and witnesses may have disappeared. The state has already laid out its case and the defense knows what’s coming. It can change tactics, shifting away from things that didn’t work the first time. But circumstances had changed in Paterson. Racial tensions had eased somewhat and Carter was no longer an overwhelming presence. To everyone’s surprise, Passaic County district attorney Burrell Ives Humphreys was able to mount a case even powerful than the first one. Most important was his introduction of the preceding events of that night.

  • Only hours before the shooting, Frank Conforti, a white man who had previously owned a bar in Paterson’s black neighborhood, had shot and killed a black man, Roy Holloway, to whom he had sold it. Conforti had wanted to buy it back but Holloway refused. An angry mob had gathered at the scene and Conforti barely made it out alive, escorted by a cordon of police officers. (Conforti was later convicted of murder.)
  • Holloway’s stepson, Eddie Rawls, a bartender at yet another establishment, was one of Carter’s biggest admirers. One section of his bar was reserved as the “Champ’s Corner.” Witnesses now testified Carter and Rawls had talked intensively after the shooting and Carter had subsequently visited several people in search of a gun that had been stolen from him the previous year.
  • All three witnesses who had testified they were with Carter that night now recanted. They said that Carter had asked them to lie for him. One of Carter’s former sparring partners, “Wild Bill” Hardney, also testified that Carter had pressured him to provide an alibi but he had refused. On the advice of a friend who was a parole officer, Hardney had skipped town during the first trial.

When first arrested, both Carter and Artis had taken a lie detector test. Both failed, although they later disputed the results. Such evidence is rarely admissible anyway, but now Humphreys made a remarkable “no-lose” proposition. If Carter and Artis would take another lie detector test and passed, he would allow it to be admitted at the trial. If they failed, on the other hand, he would not attempt to use it as evidence. Basically, he was trying to clear his conscience before he proceeded with the prosecution. Both Carter and Artis refused the offer. Humphreys also made sure there were blacks on the jury (In the Denzel Washington movie, of course, the jury is all-white). Carter and Artis were convicted after only a short deliberation.

Now the liberal press and celebrity brigades went to work once again, mounting a campaign to pressure New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne into granting an outright pardon. After reviewing the matter, Byrne, a liberal Democrat, shied away but turned it over to Aldrige Hawkins, a black New Jersey Assemblyman who chaired the judiciary committee. After a lengthy investigation, Hawkins determined that Carter had definitely been “at the scene” of the crime although it could not be determined whether he or someone else had done the shooting. There had always been rumors that Eddie Rawls, the stepson of the murdered bar owner, had also been at the scene in a “dark car.” Hawkins now discovered that there was yet another witness who said she had been in that car. The prosecution had decided not to use her, believing it already had a strong enough case.

Byrne refused to issue a pardon and the second conviction made it through the New Jersey Supreme Court as well. But now it entered the federal courts, where individual judges have enormous leeway and can basically decide cases on personal convictions without any regard to the evidence. Such a judge was H. Lee Sarokin, appointed by Jimmy Carter. Sarokin wondered why anyone would have ever bothered to bring a case against Hurricane Carter in the first place. He dismissed the whole 19-year proceeding as “racist” and recommended that no one ever try the case again. Sarokin was later elevated to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals by Bill Clinton.

And so it is that on the personal whim of one federal judge the entire edifice of Hurricane Carter’s “wrongful conviction” has been built. But of course we might as well admit now, when it comes to deciding cases like this, the celebrity juggernaut and the battalions of the press count for everything while the facts have little or no bearing. A couple of years later I was arguing the Tawana Brawley case with a Newsweek editor in a radio interview. When it became obvious that a) Brawley had been making the whole thing up and b) the editor knew very little about the case, he finally blurted out, “It really doesn’t matter. This case isn’t about one young woman being raped by a group of white men. It’s about the whole history of white men taking advantage of black women back to the days of slavery.” So there you have it. When the facts conflict with the narrative, the facts must give way.

In the Hurricane Carter case, the fact probably never really mattered either. Much more important was the prevailing narrative that law enforcement is always biased and blacks are its eternal victims. In Norman Jewison’s film, The Hurricane, released in 1999, the Paterson detective who worked on the case is portrayed as an out-and-out racist and even Carter’s 1964 loss to middleweight champion Joey Giardello is depicted as a Carter rout in which he is robbed by racist judges. (Even Carter later admitted Giardello won the fight.) Both the detective and Giardello won settlements from the filmmaker — but who cares? The story is already out there.

Had Carter confessed his guilt, he probably would have been pardoned or paroled and wouldn’t have spent much more time in prison than he did anyway. He never did get over his violent tendencies. In 1976, shortly after being released from his first conviction, Carter viciously beat Carolyn Kelley, a 37-year-old black woman who had spearheaded his campaign in New Jersey, putting her in the hospital. Wild Bill Hardney, the former sparring partner who wouldn’t lie for him, had showed up and Kelley mistakenly thought Carter would be glad to see him. Carter’s entourage pressured her not to bring charges and once again he got off. In his autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, Carter said Kelley was trying to blackmail him.

What is most visibly on display here, however, is the everlasting inability of the liberal mind to deal with the problem of evil. Isn’t is just possible that someone who was so notoriously vicious inside the ring might have had a touch of pathological violence outside the ring as well? The purblind fantasizing that allowed people to spin Hurricane Carter into a victim of a racist society is the same naïveté that prompts John Kerry to proclaim “poverty” is what motivates al Qaeda, or President Obama to dismiss Russia as a “regional power” that isn’t a threat to anyone, or Joe Biden to proclaim Russia’s annexation of the Crimea as “illogical” — as if, having perceived the illogic of their actions, the Russians will quietly go away.

While reassessing his early bouts with the law in The Sixteenth Round, Carter wrote: “If I committed a crime in the eyes of society, I took no blame. I felt no more responsible for my actions than for the winds.” It is this ruthless disregard for the norms of civilization that the liberal mind just cannot wrap itself around.

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About the Author
William Tucker is news editor for RealClearEnergy.org.