Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was born in 1937 in Clifton, New Jersey, the fourth of seven children. His father may have been a deacon in the Baptist church, but Rubin had a complicated adolescence. At the age of eleven he stabbed a man and was sentenced to a juvenile reformatory. He escaped and joined the Army where he learned to box. After being discharged from the army in 1956 he was once again in constant trouble. Carter was found guilty of a series of muggings, including assault and robbery of a middle-aged black woman. He would spend the next four years in East Jersey State Prison and in Trenton State Prison.
After his release from prison in September 1961, Carter became a professional boxer. He had begun well, but his career was going downhill – his record in his last five fights had been L-L-W-D-L. He clearly lost to Joey Giardello in a 15-round middleweight title bout, despite the film Hurricane portraying the unanimous verdict as a stitch-up.
In October 1966 Rubin Carter and John Artis were arrested for a triple murder that had taken place three months earlier. On June 17, 1966, at approximately 2:30 a.m., two males entered the Lafayette Bar and Grill at East 18th Street at Lafayette Street in Paterson, New Jersey, and started shooting. The bartender, James Oliver, and one customer, Fred Nauyoks died instantly. Hazel Tanis suffered severe injuries and would become the third victim a month later. A third customer, Willie Marins survived the attack. However, he lost the sight in one eye after a gunshot wound to the head. Both Marins and Tanis told police that the shooters had been black males, though neither identified Carter or John Artis. Two new eyewitnesses, petty criminals, Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, came forward, and they positively identified Carter and Artis
Carter and Artis had both been arrested on the night of the crime. Though they matched an eyewitness description of the gunmen they were cleared by a grand jury when a surviving victim failed to identify them as the killers. A trial followed. The two eyewitnesses, Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley, both had criminal records, and it was later revealed that they had received reduced sentences and cash in exchange for their testimonies. In June 1967, Carter and Artis were convicted of triple murder and sentenced to successive life-in-prison terms. In jail, Carter maintained his innocence, defying authority by refusing to wear an inmate’s uniform and vowing to kill any prison official who touched him.
In 1975, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the convictions, and Carter and Artis were freed from prison. However, a year later, Carter was accused of assaulting his former parole officer. He and Artis were then were tried for the murders at the Lafayette Grill for a second time. Once again they were found guilty. Carter was sent back to prison in 1976, and would remain there for almost ten years. It was around this time that Bob Dylan visited Carter in prison. Impressed by the case, Dylan wrote the song in collaboration with Jacques Levy. It became Dylan’s biggest hit in years, rising to #33 on the charts.
In 1985 Carter’s lawyers filed a petition for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. Judge Haddon Lee Sarokin of the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey granted the writ, noting that the prosecution had been “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure,” and set aside the convictions. The prosecution decided that given that Carter had already served 19 years and that several witnesses were now dead, it was not worth trying him for a third time. Carter, 48 years old, was freed without bail in November 1985. He spent the rest of his life campaigning against wrongful convictions. He
I am not sure what to make of this case. I do think that the song simplifies the case a lot. Carter was no saint he had a violent temper and a criminal history, something which Dylan neglects to mention in his song. When someone becomes a cause célèbre like this alarm bells go off for me. Having said that, there were some worrying aspects of the prosecution case. The use of criminals, who have an incentive to lie, is typical but it does give you concern for the reliability of their testimony. I’m not sure I see evidence of a racist conspiracy. There is no doubt that racism exists in the police, and it must have been worse in 1960s New Jersey, but that doesn’t that every case should be analysed through this prism. Perhaps a piece of popular music cannot be expected to give a nuanced account of a complex criminal case like this, but many people’s perceptions of this case will have been framed by this song and the 2000 Norman Jewison film. What I have been trying to show is that there is more than this case than meets the eye.
If you want an alternative version of the story, journalist Cal Deal has a feature where he provides a verse- by-verse critique of the song.