I just wanted to write about the Rubin “Hurricane” Carter I knew and the impact he has had on me and my professional practice over the last decade since we have known each other. So if this blog post goes off the normal topics of this site or perhaps rambles on a little bit, please excuse me as I am writing from my heart not my head.
Before Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was exonerated, wrongful conviction was not on the forefront of America consciousness. Sure, we had “I am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang” the 1932 Best Picture winner starring Paul Muni as a man who spent 10 years on a Georgia chain gang for a crime he didn’t commit, but that was really about it. Carter, through his effort to establish his innocence and freedom, captured national attention when his story was documented by Bob Dylan and the move “Hurricane” starring Denzel Washington. Rubin’s story is well-known, so only a brief summary is necessary. Dr. Carter was convicted twice on the same charges of fatally shooting two men and a woman in a Paterson, N.J., tavern in 1966. As the NY times reports in yesterday’s obituary: “But both jury verdicts were overturned on different grounds of prosecutorial misconduct. The legal battles consumed scores of hearings involving recanted testimony, suppressed evidence, allegations of prosecutorial racial bias — Mr. Carter was black and the shooting victims were white — and a failed prosecution appeal to the United States Supreme Court to reinstate the convictions. Carter first became famous as a ferocious, charismatic, crowd-pleasing boxer who was known for his shaved head, goatee, glowering visage and devastating left hook [Seen in the picture to the left]. He s a tough boxer who was known for his shaved head, goatee, glowering visage and devastating left hook. He narrowly lost a fight for the middleweight championship in 1964.”
He and his co-defendant John Artis [pictured to the left] were ultimately freed in 1988, 22 years after they were indicted. Rubin refused to be treated as a prisoner and spent nearly 10 years in solitary for his constant refusal to follow prison rules. He was treated brutally and lost an eye while incarcerated.
Following his exoneration, Rubin founded Innocence International based in Toronto Canada, an organization focusing on reversing wrongful convictions in The US and Canada. In around 2004, Dr, Carter (he had been awarded two honorary doctorates) called me to ask me to get involved in the case of David McCallum, a Brooklyn man convicted in 1985 at the age of 16. I had just accomplished my first exoneration of a wrongful conviction involving a man named Angelo Martinez,who spent 18 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. Rubin needed an attorney in NY to help McCallum on his case. “Oscar, I am 100% convinced of David’s innocence but he needs your help. Will you help him?” he said in that gravelly, yet pleasant voice that was instantly recognizable. “How can I possibly say No to a legend” I replied. A few months later, Rubin and I were visiting David in Eastern Correctional Facility in Upstate New York. As we were walking in to the prison I asked him if he felt nervous or upset about walking into a correctional center again. He gave me his trademark laugh and said “Walking into a jailhouse knowing for certain that you are going to walk out on your own terms, is not a big deal and bothers me not one bit. It’s when you have no idea when or if you’re ever going to walk out that jailhouses pose a problem.” Good point, I said. After our long visit with David we formulated a strategy and attack plan that we are still pursuing nearly ten years later.
I would meet Rubin a few times over the years we worked on David’s case together. To the left is a picture of me, Rubin and Ken Klonsky, co-author of Rubin’s latest book and a member of the McCallum innocence team. The picture is from a book-signing event in New York. Rubin saw his role on the team as keeping the team focused on David’s case as well as helping to get media and national experts involved in the case. He would call every now and again with an idea or a pep talk to get the case back on track. Two years or so ago, when I found a key witness and got her to finally give us a statement after she had repeatedly refused to do so, he left me an effusive congratulatory voicemail message, that I carry on my phone to this day. A few times a year, when I am in the midst of a dead-end on a tough case or things don’t go my way in court, I will playback the message. I can never contain the smile that comes to my face when I hear the opening lines “Oscar, how are you my brother. I called to thank you, congratulate you and let you know that I love you . . ..” That’s how the man was – no hate, no regrets, no bitterness. Always wanted to make you feel positive and stay focused on positive things.
The last time I saw Rubin was at an event to raise awareness for Leonard Peltier’s plight. Peltier, a Native American activist and member of the American Indian Movement (AIM) has been protesting his innocence since the day of his arrest. In 1977, he was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for first degree murder in the shooting of two Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents during a 1975 conflict on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The evidence against him was thin at best. Rubin was asked to be the keynote speaker at the benefit concert held to raise awareness about Leonard’s case. He was very weak and feeling the effects of the cancer that would take his life. It took all the energy he had to walk out onto the stage and deliver his speech, but no one in the audience was told nor could they discern that he was ill. He was in high spirits during his speech, breaking the ice with a classic one-liner that I had heard him deliver too many times to remember: “Until I saw Denzel Washington portray me on the big screen, I had no idea how good looking I was!” After a few more Denzel-related jokes and anecdotes, he began to talk about John Artis, his co-defendant who refused to turn State’s evidence against Rubin despite promises of freedom. He brought John to the stage to thunderous applause. At this point, the event organizers began getting restless as the scheduled acts were long, and included heavyweights like Jackson Browne; Michael Moore; Common; and Pete Seeger. They were thinking about having someone walk out there to cut him short.
I decided to tell one of them about Rubin’s illness and that this was likely the last time he would speak at such a public event; I also told him that I had heard his speech and that he was near the finish line anyway. Also, I reminded them, the rest of the folks have no personal connection to wrongful conviction – Rubin is the face of it. They agreed to let him continue. Just then Rubin had worked the crowd up into a frenzy with chants of “Free Leonard.” They were all on their feet chanting with Rubin. One of the organizers said to me “As if I could possibly pull him off now anyway” and we both laughed. He ended the speech to a standing ovation and came backstage. All the famous folk wanted to meet Rubin and he was in his glory. To the left is a picture from that night. That’s Rubin with legend-in-his-own-right Harry Belafonte, one of the emcees of the night. I am partially visible on the right hand edge of the photo. Behind me is legend-in-his-own-right Pete Seeger, another emcee of the night.
That was the last time I saw Rubin in person, though we spoke on the phone a few times afterward. It’s a great way for me to remember him – triumphant; full of joy; clearly the most memorable, appreciated presenter and speaker of the evening; and given his due among other greats as a champion of the underdog and of the unjustly accused.
I know I am a better person and lawyer for having known him and worked with him on David’s case. At the book signing for his last book, “Eye of the Hurricane – My Path From Darkness to Freedom” he inscribed my copy of the book, telling me he was proud to know me and work with me, calling me his “friend and hero.” Can you imagine such a thing? Nelson Mandela wrote the forward for Rubin’s book and he’s calling me a hero? It’s just another example of Rubin’s empathy for “the other guy”; I suspect the only time he didn’t show it was during his ring career. The book stands open on the credenza in my office; it’s pretty much the first thing I see when I walk into my office. It’s a reminder to me to constantly stand up for what’s right and to never tire of the fight. It will now also serve as a warm reminder of my friend and hero, Rubin Carter. The world is less fair without him in it. May he rest in peace.