No fact tried by a jury shall be otherwise re-examined in any courtroom of the United States, than according to the rules of common law.
—The Bill of Rights, Amendment VII
On June 17, 1966, at two in the morning, someone burst into the Lafayette Grill, in Paterson, New Jersey, and shot four people, killing two men, mortally wounding a woman, and critically wounding another man.
A woman named Pat Valentine, living directly upstairs, heard the shots and ran to the window. She saw two black men climb into a distinctive late-model white car with “butterfly” taillights and New York license plates. Another witness down the street saw the same thing and called police.
Minutes later, a patrol car that had already heard a radio report of the shooting saw two cars—a white one followed by a dark one—speeding down one of Paterson’s main avenues. Thinking the cars were headed for New York, the patrolman took a shortcut to the entrance to Route 4, but the cars never arrived. Cruising back through the streets of Paterson a few minutes later, he spotted a white car traveling at a normal rate of speed. He stopped it. Inside were Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the pride of Paterson’s black community and the nation’s number two-ranked middleweight boxer, and a 19-year-old named John Artis.
Because the officer hadn’t yet heard the full description of the getaway car—and because Carter was well known and highly respected in Paterson—the car was not detained. When the officer went to the scene a few minutes later and heard Valentine’s description, however, he realized it matched Carter’s brand new Manhattan-rented Dodge. Carter and Artis were stopped a second time and taken to the Lafayette Grill. When Pat Valentine saw the car she not only identified it, but became hysterical and tried to run away.
Also identifying the car was another witness, 22-year-old Alfred Bello, a reform-school veteran whom police had discovered inside in the bar when they arrived. Bello said he was about to enter the Lafayette Grill for a pack of cigarettes when two black men rushed out with guns. At first he thought they were police detectives. When he realized they had just shot up the bar, he turned and ran. From an alleyway he watched them get into a “highly polished” white car and drive away. Then he went back into the bar to rob the cash register.
Bello, it eventually emerged, had been acting as a lookout for another ex-offender, Dexter Bradley, who was burglarizing a factory next door. Bello had once seen Carter box in reform school, and—according to his later account—had recognized him as one of the men getting into the car. But Bello wasn’t the type to cooperate with police and said nothing.
Questioned separately at the police station, Carter and Artis gave conflicting accounts of what they had done that evening, and how they had ended up driving through Paterson at two in the morning. In searching the car, police turned up a shotgun shell and a handgun bullet of the same caliber as the ammunition used in the shooting. No guns were ever found.
Carter and Artis were summoned to testify before a grand jury two weeks later. Nothing happened for a while. Carter had enormous prestige in Paterson, and the prosecution felt it had a weak case since there were as yet no positive eyewitness identifications of the two men. Then—again according to his own account—Bello heard from a woman in a bar one night that Carter knew Bello had seen him the night of the shooting. Fearing that he might become an expendable witness—and looking for a deal on his own burglary charge—Bello went to police and told his story. In October Carter and Artis were indicted on three counts of murder.
Hours before the Lafayette Grill shooting, another murder had taken place. Frank Conforti, a white man who once owned a failing bar right on the edge of the black neighborhood, had sold it to a black man named Roy Holloway. The business had prospered under Holloway, and Conforti had decided he wanted it back. Holloway, of course, refused to sell. On the night of July 16, Conforti walked into the bar with a shotgun and killed Holloway. An angry crowd immediately assembled and Conforti locked himself in the bathroom. Police had to form a cordon to escort Conforti out of the bar and on to the police station. Conforti was convicted of murder and served a “life term” of fourteen years.
Holloway had a stepson named Eddie Rawls, who was bartender at another Paterson establishment. One small section of that bar was called “The Champ’s Corner.” It was set aside for Carter, a friend of Rawls and a regular patron. John Artis, a young athlete from neighboring Clifton who was just beginning to cut a name for himself in the community and who idolized Carter, was another frequent customer.
Carter testified before the grand jury that he had heard about the earlier killing. He also knew there was talk of a “shaking”—some kind of retaliation— in the black community. But he had not heard that anyone had intended a shooting. To someone living in Paterson, the Lafayette Grill would have seemed a likely target for retaliation. Located just up from Holloway’s bar on the street that divided the black and white neighborhoods, it was known as a “redneck” hangout whose owner—who was killed in the shooting—had frequently refused service to blacks.
At the trial in May 1967, both Pa t Valentine and Bello reported their identification of Carter’s distinctive car. Bello and Bradley also personally identified Carter and Artis as the men who had emerged from the bar—although it seems almost impossible that Bradley, who had been down a long alleyway, could have seen anything. The defense argued that the police had planted the shotgun shells in Carter’s car. The defendants also presented three witnesses—two women and a man—who said they had been elsewhere with Carter and Artis that night.
After a 31-day trial, Carter and Artis were both convicted of first-degree murder. Artis received a life sentence, making him eligible for parole in 1981. Carter received a double-life sentence, and was not eligible for parole until 1994.
In 1974, Carter received a $10,000 advance from Viking Publishers for writing his life story, The Sixteenth Round. The money immediately went to Fred Hogan, an investigator with the public defender’s office in Monmouth County who was acting as Carter’s “agent. ” (Hogan even paid income tax on the money.) Hogan says Carter asked him to handle the money because “he couldn’t cash the check while he was in jail.” Shortly thereafter, Hogan began a series of meetings with Bello, who was back in jail and reportedly angry because he hadn’t received a $10,000 reward offered after the shooting. Hogan’s own notes—introduced at the second trial—indicate that Bello asked for a payment of $10,000, because, Hogan says, “he said he was going to sell his story to the highest bidder.” Hogan nevertheless insists that he didn’t offer Bello any money.
At first Bello was “uncooperative,” but after several meetings he announced he was recanting his testimony identifying Carter. Hogan got in touch with Selwyn Raab, who was just moving from PBS to the New York Times, and Hal Levinson, also of PBS, who broke the story. A popular campaign was begun to release Carter and Artis.
The case had already been reviewed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but now the New Jersey State Supreme Court called another hearing to review the new evidence. Although the Court said it didn’t believe the recantations, it settled on a technicality that accomplished what Bello’s new testimony failed to achieve. Since the original trial, discovery rules had been recodified by the U.S. Supreme Court, as part of the broad expansion of criminal defendants’ rights during the 1960s and 70s. Applying these rules retroactively, the Court said that the prosecution had withheld information that detectives had made certain promises to Bello—even though the only promise was that Bello’s parole would be served outside of Passaic County because Bello feared retaliation.
Carter and Artis were released and a new trial was scheduled.
It is a rule of thumb in criminal cases that they become more difficult to prosecute as time goes by. Witnesses die, memories fade, and victims and witnesses often become reluctant to relive a traumatic experience. It came as something of a surprise, then, when in 1976 the Passaic County prosecutor’s office presented a much more powerful case against Carter and Artis than it had at the first trial.
In 1967, the trial judge had not allowed the prosecution to talk about the circumstances surrounding the murders. The case had been tried simply on the hard evidence. The second time, however, the district attorney was allowed to go into lengthy detail about the murder of Holloway and the subsequent events. It also became clear that some of Carter’s charisma had faded in the Paterson community.
One witness said he had seen Carter talking with Eddie Rawls after the first killing. Others testified that Carter had spent part of the evening looking for a gun. Carter had lost two guns a year before and had later been told by a woman that a man named Neil Morrison, one of his former sparring partners, had stolen them. That evening Carter sought out Morrison to con front him with the woman in an effort to retrieve the guns.
In addition, the three witnesses who had provided Carter’s alibi at the first trial now testified that Carter had asked them to lie for him. A fourth witness also said that Carter had approached him and asked him to provide an alibi. The witness had consulted a friend who was a parole officer, and was advised to “disappear ” during the first trial, which he had done.
Both Pat Valentine and a reporter from the Passaic Herald-News testified they had seen the police officer find the two bullets in the car. Bello, reversing himself a third time, once again said it was Carter and Artis he had encountered outside the bar. (Bradley, the other ex-con, who had almost certainly lied at the first trial, had recanted because “his conscience bothered him,” but he could not be found by either side during the second trial.) Carter, who had testified on his own behalf at the first trial, did not take the stand.
A jury of ten whites and two blacks once again convicted Carter and Artis on three counts of murder.
Just before the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed the first conviction, another “trial” took place. Governor Brendan Byrne was petitioned by many people to grant Carter an outright pardon. He asked Eldridge Hawkins, a black New Jersey Assemblyman and head of the judiciary committee, to investigate the matter. After several months, the committee submitted a report concluding that Carter and Artis were in fact “at the scene of the crime,” but that other people may have been involved in the shooting. In particular, the Hawkins report turned up a woman whom police had known about but whom the prosecution had deemed too unreliable to put on the witness stand.
There had always been reports that a second, dark car had sped away from the scene behind Carter’s white Dodge. Long after it was too late to conduct any searches, Passaic police realized that the street on which the patrolman first saw the cars speeding past, and the perpendicular street where Carter’ s Dodge was stopped a short while later, intersected at Eddie Rawls’s house. Eddie Rawls owned a dark car. The woman mentioned in the Hawkins report claimed to have been in the second car.
Byrne did not pardon Carter.
The second conviction held up longer than the first. It made it past the New Jersey Supreme Court on a 4-to-3 vote. But last September it ran into Federal District Judge H. Lee Sarokin, who sits in Newark.
Using the blank check issued to federal judges by the U.S. Supreme Court for overturning local jury verdicts—in blatant violation of the Seventh Amendment—Judge Sarokin ruled the second conviction “unconstitutional” and ordered Carter released from prison. He said that the Passaic County prosecutor’s suggestion of possible racial motives in the killing had violated the defendants’ constitutional rights. Referring to the evidence in the case as “disputed,” Sarokin said that in his judgment the case did not merit a conviction. He urged that in the name of “justice and compassion” Carter and Artis not be retried.
And so the case of Hurricane Carter may soon be over. The prosecutors are appealing to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, and whoever loses there will certainly appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Passaic County prosecutor’s office has not said whether it will attempt a third trial if its appeals are denied.
On the evidence, another conviction is not impossible. But is it worth the effort? Given our current system, where a single federal judge, reading a trial record, can not only overturn the verdict of twelve jurors who actually see and hear the witnesses, but also nullify the reviewing powers of a state’s entire judicial apparatus, convictions can no longer be measured in terms of finality—stare juris, as it was once called, long the pride of English law. They must be measured instead by how long they stand up in an appeals process that never, never ends. Carter will be eligible for parole from his two “life sentences” in a few years. Another prosecution would cost Passaic County at least a half million dollars. Each successive reversal bludgeons the public into believing that prosecutor and juries really have no power against the higher courts, and that the criminal defendant is playing the winning hand.
Nearly twenty years after the shooting in the Lafayette Grill, Rubin Carter may soon stand exonerated for the “crime he didn’t commit.”