Late of an April evening in 1974, Rubin Carter was sitting at the small desk in his five- by seven-foot cell in Rahway (N.J.) State Prison, reading the manuscript of his autobiography, when he picked up that faint, familiar scent of menace in the incarcerated air. The man had spent nearly half of his 37 years behind bars—the past seven for a triple murder that he vehemently insisted he had not committed—and in the course of time he had learned to read, like a second language, the quietest shifts in mood and rhythm inside prison walls.
Carter looked at his watch. It was past 10. He went to the door of his cell. Outside, the lights were still on in his wing. Rahway ran like a timepiece, and one of the things a man could always count on was the dimming of the houselights at 10. In the second language, lights off beyond that hour was good; lights on, bad. "It meant that something extraordinary was going on," he says.
Carter was the leader of the Rahway Inmates Council, a group of jailhouse rockers working for prison reform. That very day Carter had presided over a peaceful, if unauthorized, meeting in the prison rec hall, urging inmates to air their grievances through the council. He sensed he was in trouble for that. Indeed, Rahway was preparing to ship him back to Trenton State—the maximum-security prison where he had previously done time—on charges of inciting a riot.
"I knew they were coming to get me," he says. "I didn't have to hear rumors."
April 12, 1992
That left him but one thing to do.
Quietly he picked up his footlocker, his standing locker, his desk—every movable object in his room except his bed—and stacked them against the door of his cell. He then stripped off his shirt and denims and pulled on his sweatpants and sweatshirt, the one with the hood to cover his shaved head. Fearing an attack of Mace, he uncapped a jar of Vaseline and swabbed his neck and face with jelly, spreading it in thick gobs around his nose and eyes. He was ready.
It was surely no wonder, in this hour of maximum danger, that he should choose to face the enemy on the terms he understood best, gleaming and hooded in a very small space. Back in the mid-1960s, Rubin (Hurricane) Carter had been the No. 1-ranked middleweight fighter in the world—a fierce, unembraceable attacker with a hard body, a mastiff's courage and a left hook that whistled as it worked.
Carter lost his only shot at the middleweight title on Dec. 14, 1964—a 15-round split decision to champion Joey Giardello. Nearly two years later he was training for his second chance, against champion Dick Tiger, when he and a former high school track star named John Artis, a college-bound 19-year-old who had never been in trouble with the law, were arrested in Paterson, N.J., for the June 17, 1966, slaying of three whites in Paterson's Lafayette Bar & Grill.
For all the years that Carter would spend in prison for that crime—from 1967 to '85, from the first day of his confinement at Trenton State through his extraordinary metamorphosis at Rahway, through two demonstrably tainted trials to his final vindication and walk to freedom—he would proclaim his innocence by living in contempt and defiance of his keepers. On first entering Trenton he refused to surrender his wristwatch and ring; to shave his goatee, as prison rules required; to work at any of the prison jobs. As punishment he spent three months in The Hole, his first of many descents into that airless, sepulchral dungeon. When they finally raised him up out of The Hole, he refused to wear prison clothes. He refused to undergo psychiatric evaluations. An angry recluse, he ate his meals alone in his cell, heating up cans of soup with a small copper coil. Late into the night prisoners could hear him tapping at his antediluvian typewriter, a manual Underwood left to him by a parolee, pecking out his story in the long, impassioned cadences of his rage.
Now, on this April night in 1974, he sat on his bed, looking like some deranged warrior peering out from the hollow of his cowl, his black face smeared with translucent war paint, listening for the sound of boots marching along the tier. They came about three o'clock. "With Mace and chains and shackles," Carter recalls. "Fifty of them, all lined up out there. Guards in their full riot gear."
Carter froze. From inside a helmet, a muffled voice boomed: "Come out, Carter! Come out!"
"I mean this," Carter warned them. "I ain't going with you. If anybody comes in here to get me, god forbid. You'll need 20 men! First come, first served."
At that moment Bobby Martin, a sergeant of the guards, arrived on the scene. He had just rushed back to Rahway from his house and was on a mission to save a man he regarded as a friend. "I never met anybody like him," says Martin, a captain now in the New Jersey prison system. "I used to go in the cell and talk to him during lunch. You're not supposed to do that, but I'd do it." Martin owed Carter one, too. One day when Martin was a rookie, he had found himself trapped by two thugs on the tier in Four Up Wing. Carter came to Martin's rescue, knocking out the assailants.
Martin came to the door and looked inside. "Ever see Rubin's eyes when he's mad?" says Martin. "His eyes get real small—like a mad cat's eyes. I looked at him and said, 'Good lord. Help me now.' He was going to war."
Martin asked Carter to let him in. Carter removed the barricade and opened the door. Inside, the two men huddled quietly. Martin told Carter that they were taking him to Trenton State. He assured Carter that nothing bad would happen to him. "Let me hook you up, and I'll take you down to Trenton," Martin said. "Eventually you're going to have to go, whether you beat 15 of us. Or 20 of us. There'll be a hundred more."
The promise of Martin's escort was all Carter needed. "I'll go," he said, and he rose to leave. Before he left, though, Carter scooped up the manuscript of his book and stuffed it into his sweatpants. Holding the sheaves of paper to his body, Carter left Rahway in the dead of that terrifying night. "If they had stripped me naked," he says, "I would have taken that manuscript. It was a little thread of hope. The hope that somebody, someday, would read it and understand what had happened to me. What was happening to me. It was my lifeline—my message beyond the walls."
Six years later, one September day in 1980, a 16-year-old black youth named Lesra Martin arrived at a used-book fair being held in a warehouse in Toronto. Lesra was accompanied by what he would call "my new Canadian family"—eight white entrepreneurs who had plucked him out of the Bushwick ghetto of Brooklyn the year before and brought him north to live and study in their tree-shaded house in Toronto. Lesra was extremely bright, and the Canadians had taken him to the fair to feed his increasing appetite for books, encouraging him to find works by black writers as a way of learning about the culture and history of his people. While roaming the warehouse, Lesra saw a black face on the cover of a hardback. He picked up the book—The 16th Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472 by Rubin (Hurricane) Carter.
Lesra paid a dollar for it.
That afternoon in his room, Lesra curled up with the book. The 16th Round, published to general acclaim in the fall of 1974, was an angry, eloquent indictment of growing up black in America, of the New Jersey judicial system that had arrested Carter and locked him up and of the medieval prisons that had so long confined him. Lesra became engrossed in Carter's talc of his life: his youthful days as a gang leader in New Jersey and his arrest at age 12 for attacking, with his Boy Scout knife, a man he accused of sexually assaulting him; Carter's six years in the Jamesburg (N.J.) State Home for Boys, his escape from there and his enlistment in the Army in '54; his discharge from the Army and his quick arrest for the Jamesburg escape, for which he spent 10 months in the Annandale (N.J.) Reformatory; his arrest in '57 for purse snatching ("the most dastardly thing I've ever done," Carter would say) and the four years he served in Trenton State for that crime; his release from Trenton; and his rise to fame as a prizefighter.
Early in the book, where Carter described how a policeman had hassled him as a boy, Lesra—who had experienced the same thins in Brooklyn—so identified with the story that he started reading it out loud to his Canadian friends. They too got caught up in the tale, and for the next few nights they took turns reading it to each other.
They learned, among other things, that at 2:30 in the morning of June 17, 1966, two black men walked into the Lafayette Bar in Paterson, opened fire with a shotgun and a pistol and instantly killed two people: the bartender, James Oliver, and a patron, Fred Nauyaks. A second patron, Hazel Tanis, died of her wounds a month later. A third customer, William Marins, suffered a head wound that partially blinded him. That night Carter and Artis were drinking and dancing in a local club, and, accompanied by a third black man, John Royster, they left the club and went driving in Carter's white Dodge Polara about the time of the Lafayette Bar shootings. Carter let Artis drive.
At one point a policeman stopped the three men, but when he saw Carter in the backseat—Carter was probably the most recognizable citizen of Paterson, a nationally known fighter with a signature shaved head—he waved them on, telling them that the police were looking for "two Negroes in a white car." After Artis dropped off Royster, he and Carter suddenly fit the police description, and they were stopped again. The police whisked them off to the scene of the crime and then to a hospital, where Carter and Artis were placed before the wounded Marins. Asked by police if these were the men who had shot him, Marins shook his head no. Marins and Tanis agreed that the killers were light-skinned blacks, about six feet tall, and that the man with the shotgun, whom the state would later claim was Carter, had a pencil mustache. Carter was 5'7", very dark, with a thick mustache and goatee; Artis was light-skinned and 6'1".
Carter and Artis were given lie-detector tests, and each passed. The police then released them. Two weeks later, during a grand-jury hearing at which both Carter and Artis testified, the city's investigator in charge of the case, Vincent DeSimone, testified that "the physical description of the two holdup men is not even close [to that of Carter and Artis]." Furthermore, DeSimone said, both killers had worn "dark clothing." Carter had worn a white jacket, Artis a light-blue V-neck sweater. The grand jury returned no indictment.
Carter and Artis were arrested four months later, on Oct. 14, for the Lafayette Bar murders. What had happened during the interval to turn Carter into a light-skinned, six-foot black with a pencil mustache? The state had produced two eyewitnesses, Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, who would testify that Carter was one of the gunmen; Bello would also identify Artis. Both witnesses were repeat offenders, but their testimony was the key to convicting Carter and Artis, even though the state suggested no motive for the crime. Bello testified under oath that the state had offered him nothing for his testimony but protection. On June 29, 1967, Carter was given one concurrent and two consecutive life sentences, Artis three concurrent life terms.
While in prison Carter focused all his energy on resisting his jailers and fighting for his freedom. "I don't belong here," he told members of the prison board. "I am not a criminal. You are not going to treat me like you treat other people here." In prison he lost his right eye in what he called a "botched operation" to correct a detached retina. (It was to seek improved medical treatment for inmates that he then joined the Inmates Council.) Though his schooling was limited, he read Plato and imagined himself communing with Socrates. He was respected by fellow prisoners because he was a man of his word. "When he said he would do something," says Bobby Martin, "he did it."
When Lesra and his Canadian friends finished The 16th Round, they were convinced of Carter's innocence and curious about his fate. They searched through newspaper files at the Toronto Reference Library for information on him.
What they learned stunned them: Late in 1974, just weeks before the publication of Carter's book, Bello and Bradley recanted their testimony identifying Carter and Artis as the Lafayette Bar killers. They told both a public defender and reporter Selwyn Raab of The New York Times that Paterson police had pressured them into lying in exchange for reward money and lenient treatment for crimes they had committed.
"I was 23 years old and facing 80 to 90 years in jail [for robbery]," Bradley told Raab. "There's no doubt Carter was framed.... I lied to save myself."
Carter's case became a cause cèlèbre among civil libertarians and the political left, new and old. In the autumn of 1975, radio stations across the nation began playing Bob Dylan's new song, Hurricane. One of the verses went like this:
Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell.
During the recantation furor of 1974, a tape recording surfaced of a DeSimone interview with Bello on Oct. 11, 1966. The New Jersey Supreme Court, to which Carter and Artis had appealed their convictions, listened to the tape. The transcript, the court stated, "shows that in the beginning Bello was unable to identify Artis as one of the two men and was not sure of Carter. He was also uncertain of the make of the white car used by the gunmen, which he had seen driving slowly through the area and later parked on the street. However, as the interview progressed, and after DeSimone had given assurances that Bello would receive favorable or sympathetic treatment, Bello became positive in his identification of Carter and Artis and the car in which they had been riding."
Not only had the defendants not known about such inducements, which they could have used to discredit Bello's testimony during their trial, but also Bello had not disclosed the fact that he had been offered more than protection. The New Jersey Supreme Court, in a 7-0 decision, overturned the 1967 verdict on the grounds that the state had violated the U.S. Supreme Court's Brady rule, which requires prosecutors to give exculpatory evidence to the defense.
Carter and Artis got a second trial, in the fall of 1976. By then, however, Bello had reversed himself again. He testified once more that he had seen Carter and Artis leaving the murder scene earning guns. This time, with an admitted perjurer as its key witness, the state offered a motive for the Lafayette Bar killings, portraying them as an act of "racial revenge." The alleged motive, presented at a time of widespread racial tension and fear of urban riots, was baseless in fact and prejudicial in nature, but the jury did not see it that way. On Dec. 22, Carter and Artis were convicted a second time of the Lafayette Bar murders. Their prison sentences from the first trial were reinstated.
Once the Canadians had caught up with all these developments, they were more intrigued than ever. They tracked down Carter by telephoning Trenton State, and then Lesra composed the first letter he had ever written. It began "Dear Mr. Carter" and ended with "Please write back. It will mean a lot." The letter described how a kid from one of the meanest ghettos in New York had ended up reading The 16th Round with a "family" of white folks in Toronto.
This is, in its fashion, a tale of two cities. Most of Lesra's Canadian friends had first met in the 1960s as students at the University of Toronto, where some were involved in social work and in helping expatriate Americans dodge the draft during the Vietnam War. The Canadians came from a salad of backgrounds. Sam Chaiton, who studied modern languages and literature, was the son of Jews who had immigrated to Canada after surviving the German death camp at Bergen-Belsen. Terry Swinton and his sister Kathy were the children of a wealthy Toronto business executive. Lisa Peters, divorced and with a young son, Marty, had emerged from a life of poverty to study psychology at the university. She would later become involved in drug rehabilitation work.
They and a few others eventually went into business together, importing batiks from Malaysia, and in 1976 they bought a house to share in Toronto. In '79, weary of long trips to the Orient, they began looking for something else to do with their restless energy. Chaiton and Terry Swinton went to work testing a device intended to reduce pollution in automobile engines. Their experiments took them that summer to Brooklyn, where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had a lab. It was there that they met Lesra, who had a summer job at the lab. Fascinated with these foreigners—"Dere go Canada!" he would say when they passed him—he started hanging around them.
"We responded to his spark and light and curiosity," says Chaiton. "He responded to us, and we became very friendly. We loved him right off the bat."
"They trusted me," Lesra says. "That meant a lot."
The boy lived with his parents, Alma and Earl, and five of his seven siblings in a fourth-story apartment with no railing on the top staircase and no knob on the door. They were churned in poverty. Earl had once been the lead singer in a popular doo-wop group, the Del Vikings, but the group had long ago disbanded, and he had been disabled since falling in a factory accident. Lesra's oldest brother, Earl Jr., was in prison for breaking and entering, and Lesra earned money for the family by bagging and delivering groceries and working at the lab.
When Chaiton and Terry Swinton returned to Toronto, they invited Lesra and a friend to visit them there. The boys spent three days playing in Toronto's parks and gamboling about town, and when the Canadians invited Lesra back a few weeks later, he fairly leaped into their arms. By the end of his second visit, the Canadians had grown so fond of him that they offered to make a home for him in Toronto and send him to school there. "We want to give you a chance to have a good education," Chaiton told Lesra. Lesra was eager to join them.
The Canadians approached Alma and Earl with their plan, and Earl flew to Canada to see where his 15-year-old son would live. It did not take him long to decide. Bushwick was a war zone. Lesra "didn't stand a chance if he stayed in Brooklyn," says Chaiton. "There was no way he would get anywhere."
When Lesra moved to Toronto in the fall of 1979, the effects of his ghetto life were manifest. He was malnourished and suffering a chronic infection that made his nose run and his eyes bloodshot. Antibiotics cured the infection; the Canadians' plump refrigerator, the malnutrition. But nothing would touch Lesra more deeply than being taken to an ophthalmologist and being fitted for eyeglasses. "I was blind," Lesra says, "and I didn't even know it. I had nothing to compare it to. The world was a blur."
His poor eyesight mirrored the state of his education. It was apparent that he could not attend public schools in Canada. "He was almost illiterate," says Chaiton. So he began tutoring Lesra at home. Since black ghetto English was Lesra's primary tongue, Chaiton says, he began teaching Lesra the King's English as if it were a second language. "I got a textbook instructing how to teach English to a foreigner," he says.
The Canadians read to Lesra from books such as Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land, about the author's life in Harlem, and within a year they began urging him to read, on his own, the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. Lesra literally cried in fear of such a book, with its long words and serpentine prose, but the Canadians kept after him until, in the summer of 1980, he somehow was able to finish reading it. "The problem we had was not one of his intelligence but of the overwhelming feeling of inferiority he had," says Chaiton. "Overcoming those psychological barriers was awful."
Down in Trenton, meanwhile, Carter had been going through a sea change of his own. After his second conviction, he says, "I wanted to die." He had turned his face to the wall and withdrawn even further into himself. "I was looking down a long, dark tunnel," he says.
Carter saw and talked to almost no one, in prison or out. At his insistence, his wife, Mae Thelma, had stopped coming to see him. (They were divorced in 1984.) Carter hibernated with his books for three years. Then, on a sweltering afternoon in 1979, the summer that Lesra met the Canadians, Carter did something that he hadn't done in years. He went outside, to the yard, to escape the prison heat. "I was looking at the big wall, 30 feet high, with gun towers, and suddenly a light lit up, and I could see through the wall," he says. "No, it was not a hallucination! I was amazed. As suddenly as it appeared, it disappeared. I had heard about these things. So I began reading about Eastern religions. And I began growing my hair, something I hadn't done in 20 years. And I cut off my beard."
That was the Carter, softened around the edges, to whom Lesra wrote his letter in 1980. "I was leaving me, and I didn't even know it," Carter says. "I was opening up. And suddenly this letter came. How could I not respond? His letter had so much energy! There was a feeling there.... I typed a reply."
Thus began a relationship tying the man to the boy and the Canadians, a relationship that would ultimately change Carter's life. He and Lesra exchanged several letters that fall, and Lesra suggested visiting Carter when he was home in Brooklyn over Christmas. Carter hesitated; at Trenton visitors met prisoners in the abandoned cells of the former death row, next to the execution chamber where Bruno Hauptmann had died after being convicted of killing the Lindbergh baby, and Carter did not want to expose Lesra to this unearthly grimness. "This face is trying to get there and not bring another face here," he wrote to the family. "So if Lesra wishes to come—he will."
For Lesra it was haunting to step inside that tomb. He had a powerful sense that this was the world he had escaped when he went to Canada. "When I heard those steel gates closing behind me," he says, "I thought, I could be in here." Carter could feel him trembling when they embraced. The boy told the man about his family in Brooklyn and his new life in Canada, about his studies and the books he was reading. He was working on weekends, sending money home to his relatives, but he felt guilty for leaving them and accepting the chance he had been offered. "How did I deserve escaping that?" he asked Carter. "Why me?"
"You never deserved to be there in the first place," Carter told him, "so you don't have to feel guilty about getting out."
The two connected. Carter heard a boy's laughter that he had not heard in years. "Lesra was in a state of joy," Carter says. "You could feel it. It was like a son coming to see me. He was just so effervescent, and I loved the way he spoke, so precisely, and the way he laughed, even in this death house. The way Lesra was gave a lot of credibility to the Canadian family. I knew then that this was not a hoax. These were not people playing with our lives. It made me listen to them, and at that time I wasn't listening to anybody."
Early in 1981, at the Canadians' urging, Carter began calling them collect, and that February, Chaiton, Peters and Terry Swinton drove to Trenton to see him. No one knew it at the time, of course, but the freeing of Hurricane Carter had begun. The Canadians were shocked at Carter's appearance. "He looked almost fragile," Swinton says. "A hundred and thirty-five pounds. He wasn't eating. A can or two of soup a day. He looked to us like a really gentle person, more like a writer than a prizefighter."
They teased Carter at once about his soft demeanor. "We don't believe you were ever the Number One contender," Chaiton said. "Come on!"
Carter turned on his "baleful stare," the one he had learned from hanging around and sparring with Sonny Liston, but the Canadians laughed at him. Peters's father had been an amateur lighter, and whether it was because of that or the poverty she and Carter had both experienced when they were young, the two began forming a strong attachment.
Over the next few months, in visits, phone calls and letters, the Canadians learned a lot about Carter's life in prison. "Don't you go to parole meetings?" Terry Swinton once asked.
"You have to admit guilt and be remorseful," Carter said. "How can I do that? I don't want a parole. I want to be exonerated."
"Do you need anything?" asked Swinton.
"I've got everything I need in my cell," Carter said. "Jesus, Socrates and Buddha. I fill the voids in my life with figures in history. I don't need anything else."
"Man, that's a shame," Chaiton said. "If you've got everything you need, then it's not too bad a place."
Carter snapped off his words: "If you need anything, if you want anything, then this place has a hold over you because they can deny you that. The least painful thing is not to want anything. All I want is my freedom, and they deny me that every day, every hour that I am here. Do you understand?"
They soon understood a lot of things, and they liked what they saw of Carter. Indeed, Carter quickly became another member of their family, one who happened to be living far from home. The Canadians began by visiting him once a month for long weekends, staying in cheap motels near Trenton, and by the spring Carter was calling them collect several times a week. He wrote them a letter in which he said, "For the first time in my life...I can truly say that I trust somebody. I trust you. And without reservations."
That letter deepened the Canadians' resolve to help Carter find his way out. "If you had a brother in jail for something he didn't do," Terry Swinton says, "wouldn't you do everything possible to help him?"
For the next 4½ years, that is precisely what the Canadians did. At the end of 1981, using money they had made selling batiks, they turned their business efforts to renovating houses in Toronto. They also began spending 10 days a month in New Jersey, visiting Carter and becoming immersed in the history of the Lafayette Bar case. On Dec. 5, just before Artis was released on parole after serving 15 years. Carter was exiled to Trenton State's dreaded Vroom Readjustment Unit for the system's incorrigibles. Artis, a model prisoner, had attended Glassboro (N.J.) State College while doing his time, leaving prison unguarded in the morning and returning at night, and had taught adult-education courses for inmates; Carter, meanwhile, was sent to Vroom for 90 days for refusing to stand up in his cell for a head count.
He spent the first 15 days in The Hole, "where you are like dead," he says. "No air, no ventilation. They turned on the heat in the summer and turned it off in the winter. Do you know what it's like to be powerless? Totally and utterly powerless? I never knew a prisoner who did not go to his cell at night and cry. Not every night, but every prisoner. You could hear them. You could hear everything. I still hear everything. Only this time I had Lisa, Lesra, Terry and Sam to hold on to. They were my anchors."
In January 1982, with Carter calling Toronto for several hours a day, the Canadians' long-distance telephone charges were $4,238.39. By then the Canadians had broken Carter's resistance to accepting their gifts of food, clothing and appliances. Peters had argued. "You are denying yourself stuff before [the guards] have a chance to take it away. You are helping them keep you kept. If they want to take it, let them."
Now Carter was walking around in a pair of sheepskin slippers, wearing a velvet robe and watching television in his cell. Moreover, every month the Canadians sent him a 25-pound box of his favorite canned foods, chiefly exotic nuts and date breads. The only time the Canadian anchors were not there for him was when he quietly cut them loose in the fall of 1982, a few months after the New Jersey Supreme Court, by a 4-3 decision, rejected his appeal for a third trial on the grounds that the defense had not adequately demonstrated that suppressed evidence might have affected the outcome of the second trial. "It was just crushing," Terry Swinton says. Carter was inconsolable over the decision, despite a strong dissent by Justice Robert Clifford, who wrote that the prosecution's chief witness. Bello, was "a complete, unvarnished liar, utterly incapable of speaking the truth."
Retreating into his carapace, Carter did not call his friends for nearly eight months. The house in Canada went into mourning. "I was getting ready to settle back into prison—absent good food, absent love and companionship." Carter says. "Lisa used to send me great big novelty cards. I had those pasted on those walls. I used to look at them. I felt helpless." He finally called the Canadians late in the summer of 1983. "I need you guys," he told them.
A few weeks later the Canadians decided to make one final push. They put their house on the market, and three of them—Chaiton, Terry Swinton and Peters—moved to New Jersey. The others moved into a smaller house in Toronto, where Lesra had graduated that year from high school with straight A's. Me had just enrolled at the University of Toronto, where he would major in anthropology. The Canadians' commitment staggered Carter. "I was astounded," he says. "They set up house!"
Carter asked for, and received, a transfer from Trenton to Rahway, and the Canadians look an apartment near the prison, which was closer than Trenton State was to the New York offices of Carter's and Artis's lawyers, Myron Beldock and Lewis Steel, and those of Leon Friedman, a renowned constitutional scholar who was assisting them with the case. For nearly two years the Canadians scoured New Jersey searching for new evidence and witnesses to exonerate Carter and Artis. They set up shop in Beldock's law firm at 46th Street and Fifth Avenue.
"The Canadians did the one thing that impresses me," says Beldock. "They did their homework." They had sent ahead a black case containing a three- by nine-foot chart in which they had painstakingly detailed how the testimony of various state witnesses had changed over the years, 'it was like a jump-start," says Beldock. "Very exciting."
Chaiton and Terry Swinton sat in the office surrounded by documents, and they pored through papers and folders. "It was like there were two law firms up there," Steel says. "One was Beldock's and the other was This Thing, across the hall, with the Canadians. You could go in there and ask one of these guys, 'We think in such and such a hearing that such and such was said. Do you know what I mean?' Twenty minutes later, they would come across the hall with a transcript open to the page: 'Is this what you're looking for?' "
The Canadians "heightened our awareness and our ability to handle even small issues, which all got woven into these briefs," Beldock says. Friedman was in charge of writing the legal sections of the briefs, and he recalls a day when he saw an unfamiliar statement in a draft of a brief. "Where did this come from?" Friedman asked Ed Graves, another attorney working on the case.
"The Canadians put it in," said Graves.
"Are you sure it's right?"
"Leon," said Graves, "if the Canadians say it's right, it's right."
What all the parties remember, as they were preparing the papers seeking a writ of habeas corpus from U.S. District Court Judge H. Lee Sarokin, was the crackling energy that went into the work—and the panicky sense that this was Carter's last chance to be freed from prison.
By the fall of 1985, Carter's transformation was so dramatic that he was almost unrecognizable. His cell looked like a yuppie pad. He was growing an amaryllis bulb in a pot, padding around on a Persian rug, listening to Otis Redding on his tape deck, hanging Manet prints on the walls, drying his hands on monogrammed towels and eating everything from crab bèchamel to beef Wellington—all offerings from the Canadians, who were determined to grease his transition from prison to the outside world. He was greeting fellow prisoners with a smile and a nod and giving fatherly advice to rookie guards.
Two weeks before Sarokin's decision, convinced he would soon be free, Carter started giving away all of his belongings—his typewriter and clothes, his 125 books, his prints and his copper coil. Terry Swinton visited him in prison and asked him where he had gotten his raggedy haircut. "My hair's falling out in clumps," Carter said. "The tension, I guess."
On Nov. 6, 1985, Beldock called the Canadians' apartment to tell them that Sarokin's decision was coming down the next day. The veteran judge had studied voluminous files—by his own reckoning, Carter's is the most important case he has ever decided. "I have seen some very good briefs," Sarokin recalls, "but this was about the best set of briefs I've ever seen. A remarkably good job."
The next day the Swintons went to Sarokin's chambers and waited; Peters stayed at the New Jersey apartment, waiting for Terry Swinton to call, while she talked by phone with Carter. Chaiton, Lesra and the others were at home in Canada, sitting in silence. At about 11 o'clock, Graves walked out of Sarokin's chambers holding the opinion over his head, a smile wreathing his face. Swinton grabbed the papers and read:
"The extensive record clearly demonstrates that [the] petitioners' convictions were predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.... To permit convictions to stand which have as their foundation appeals to racial prejudice and the withholding of evidence critical to the defense, is to commit a violation of the Constitution as heinous as the crimes for which these petitioners were tried and convicted."
Terry Swinton called Peters. She and Carter heard the click of call waiting. Peters hit the button. "We did it!" screamed Swinton. She hit the button again. "We won!" she told Carter.
Stunned, Carter raised his eyes. Then he shouted: "We won! We won!"
Paulene McLean, a friend of Lesra's, called Canada. "A complete silence fell over the house," says Lesra. "We were stunned. It was as if, after holding our breaths all those years, we finally could exhale."
In minutes, word had swept around the prison, and then radios were carrying the news. Prisoners flocked around Carter, patting him on the back, while others came running.
"Rube, you've won!"
"Rube, you're on the radio!"
"Way to go, Rube!"
Sarokin ordered Carter released the next day. The state appealed the judge's decision for 26 long months, right up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it lost at every level. Finally, on Feb. 26, 1988, a Passaic County judge formally dismissed the 1966 indictments. The 22-year odyssey of Rubin Carter and John Artis had ended. It had touched many people in many ways, and it had left the two defendants changed beyond their memories.
For Artis, an only child raised by doting parents to be respectful and live responsibly, prison was a long nightmare that robbed him of his freedom, his wish to raise a family, his dreams of a career as a professional football player. He says it is not easy to confront a prospective employer, who always gets around to asking him what crime he was convicted for. "Ah, triple murder. But...." It's a stigma to this day. And given the tortuous history of the case, it's difficult to explain away.
The state had tried hard to get Artis to testify against Carter. Officials took Artis to his father's house at Christmastime in 1974 and promised him freedom the next day if he fingered Rubin. He refused. "It would have been a lie," Artis says. "I wasn't brought up like that."
He could not help himself one day in 1973 when he was out on furlough. He was in Paterson, and he had to see the bar where the three people were murdered. He had never been in there. "It was no different than any other bar I'd ever seen," he says. "People kept lookin' at me. I stood inside the door and just looked around. I was trying to place what happened there, from the testimony in the trial...and then I left."
Artis lives in Portsmouth, Va., and works with troubled youths. "Being in prison is like being dead, and I want these kids to know that," he says. "And you know what? When we were cleared, no one even apologized."
Lesra Martin still goes back to Bushwick to visit his siblings and see the old friends who have escaped the usual traps. There are not many left. "I will never forget where I came from," he says. "Ghetto life will always be a part of me. I do not want that feeling to go away." He is further away from it today than ever. After graduating with honors from the University of Toronto, he went to graduate school in sociology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia—a last stop on the Underground Railroad, which spirited slaves out of the South. He was drawn to the black community there. Last year, after getting his master's degree, Lesra entered the law school at Dalhousie. He is interested in constitutional law.
"I enjoy where I am now," Lesra says. "It's frightening that there are still hundreds of thousands of people in the ghettos who can't read or write. I'm no genius. I was just given access and resources. When you're going through what I went through, you don't realize how miraculous it is. But it is miraculous."
And Carter is where he is because Lesra was where he was. The former inmate No. 45472 moved to Canada in 1988, after the state dismissed the charges against him, and for the last four years he has spent much of his time reading, writing and lecturing. He also got married. Lisa Peters is Lisa Carter now.
"I love it up here," says Carter, who intends to remain a U.S. citizen but has applied for landed immigrant status in Canada. He helped Chaiton and Terry Swinton write a book about their shared experience, called Lazarus and the Hurricane, using Lesra's Biblical name. Now, having also written a screenplay based on the book—it has been making the rounds in Hollywood—Carter and the Canadians are doing research on a proposed book about the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby in 1932.
They work out of a six-bedroom half-timbered house on 10 acres of land about 20 miles north of Toronto. They leased the house in a state of disrepair three years ago and converted it into the European hunting lodge that it resembles today. Carter also helped build the two-stall barn behind the house, and in fair weather he likes to spend his leisure riding his horse, Red Cloud, along the trails that wind through the woods and fields for miles around. "I always loved to ride horses, even back in my days as a fighter," Carter says. Horses certainly suit his new lifestyle. Carter has been given the name Badger Star by a medicine man in the Lakota Indian nation, whose culture and traditions Carter regularly studies. He has also been adopted into the family of a local Cree elder, Vern Harper.
Carter has been a willing speaker at colleges and law firms, and he was recently asked to deliver a lecture next fall at Harvard Law School before a student conference on the writ of habeas corpus. Says Judge Sarokin, "I can't think of anybody, with all the opposition now to habeas corpus, who better symbolizes the need for it than Hurricane Carter."
The Great Writ, as legal scholars call it, has been coming under heightened attack from the political right, and civil libertarians view it today as a kind of endangered species, particularly given the ultraconservative cast of the U.S. Supreme Court. Leslie Harris, chief legislative counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union in Washington, D.C., says that the Bush Administration has made elimination of habeas corpus the centerpiece of its efforts to look tough on crime. The writ is the only instrument by which the federal judiciary can correct abuses of the Bill of Rights at the state-court level, according to Harris, and the Carter-Artis case shows how vital an instrument it can be.
It is now more than 25 years since Carter was arrested in Paterson, yet wherever he speaks, he tells a tale of a past that will not let him go. "It is not finished," he says. "I still feel the loneliness. I still feel the pain. I feel it now. I feel everything. The day you get out of prison is the day your sentence begins."