The Hurricane – Rubin Carter
“The Hurricane” is the story of middleweight boxer Rubin Carter, based on the accounts of Carter’s own autobiography as well as the book written by Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton, the Canadian family that helped overturn Carter’s conviction.
At an early age, Carter understands all-too-well the negative powers of racism while growing up in rural New Jersey. As time progresses, Carter grows to hate white men for their arrogance and continual oppression of black culture, which in turn leads Carter into the world of boxing – the perfect venue to expel his own anger and hatred. A strong contender in the ring, Carter makes quite a name for himself as one of the all-time heavy-hitters despite encountering prejudice from the outside world.
Driving home one night from a club, Carter is arrested on suspicion of a triple homicide at a nearby bar. A man named Arthur Bello, who himself is a suspect, attests that Carter and his alleged accomplice, John Artis, were present in the bar at the time the murders took place. Though the case appears based on racism rather than fact, both men are ultimately convicted. Carter is sentenced to serve three life sentences in a Trenton, New Jersey prison.
At first, Carter refuses to give up on himself – the same fire that drove him to succeed in the ring still burns within. Upon arrival, Carter is given prison clothing, to which he dismisses as “slave” clothing and affirms his innocence. He stands firmly against prison life and continually clashes with guards. His refusal to comply lands him in solitary confinement for several months, where he is given little to eat and where darkness is his only friend. Growing weary, Carter eventually gives in and brandishes the uniform in exchange for a prison life of “normalcy.”
Years into his sentence, Carter is adjusting to his new surroundings. He becomes an avid reader and finds enough solace in books to pen his autobiography, perhaps as a final proclamation of innocence. He is inspired by men like Malcolm X and earns newfound respect from the guards, some of which protect his manuscript from theft upon completion.
At a local book fair in Toronto, an underprivileged boy named Lesra Martin comes across Carter’s autobiography. Upon reading it, Martin becomes convinced of Carter’s innocence and urges his Canadian foster family to lobby for the re-examination of the former champ’s case. A fight with the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey ensues, and the family works hard to grant Carter his retrial.
After almost 20 years behind bars, Carter shows signs of losing hope and no longer believes that anything will change. After several visits from Lesra and his family, Carter looks to the boy and says, “Do not write me. Do not visit me. Find it in your hearts to not weaken me with your love.” Naturally, the family doesn’t listen. Devoted to the case, the Canadians move across the street from the prison where they can engage in regular contact with Carter. They work hard with his attorneys and take the case to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
In 1985, a petition for a writ of habeas corpus is filed on Carter’s behalf. Judge H. Lee Sarokin grants the writ and oversees the re-trial that eventually overturns Carter’s conviction. Now a free man, Carter dispels his story through a single, yet powerful message: “Hate got me into this place; love’s gonna bust me out.”
Below is ESPN’s documentary on Rubin Carter, as part of their SportsCentury series. There are interviews with Carter, John Artis, Lesra, and many other people who were involved in this story.
The Hurricane – Real Life, Reel Differences
- The film shows Rubin Carter being sent to a reformatory at the age of 11 for defending himself and his friend against a potential child molester. In actually, he was sent at age 14 for robbing and beating a male civilian. In general, the movie portrayed Carter as a near-model citizen, of which he was not. Omitted from the movie was Carter’s 4 years in prison as an adult for several muggings. It was these criminal acts which suggested a violent personality and ultimately hurt his defense in court.
- The film shows Carter as a top middleweight contender in 1966 at the time of the murders, yet Carter’s boxing career was actually on the decline during this period. He had fallen to number nine in the rankings and his record stood at a meager 7-7-1.
- Carter and Artis are pulled over in the film after the shootings have taken place. The police tell them that they are looking for two black men in a white car. Carter immediately responds, “Any two will do?” implying that there is a racist motive behind the questioning. In actuality, Carter’s vehicle was an exact match of the getaway car, as described by witnesses. Furthermore, the film shows no incriminating evidence being found Carter’s car but in reality, the police covering the investigation found a shotgun shell and bullet casings. These were later found to be the same caliber as the murder weapon.
- The character of Vincent Della Pesca was based on Vincent DeSimone, who was the lead detective covering the case. However, DeSimone had a good reputation and was not the racist as depicted in the film. Several other inaccuracies in the film misportrayed DeSimone. First, DeSimone had never met Carter before the murders so could not have hounded him as a child; DeSimone passed away in 1979, so he could not have been present, nor could he have threatened Carter’s Canadian supporters prior to the 1985 trial.
- The film compressed two separate trials into one brief courtroom sentencing scene with Mr. Carter and the all-white jury. In reality, the first trial was, in fact, with an all-white jury but the second trial included two black jurors. The movie omitted the retrial of Carter and Artis in 1976, where the two of them actually spent time away from prison before being found guilty yet again.
- According to the film, one of the main reasons Carter is implied in the shootings is because of his long-standing presence in the civil rights movement, but there is no evidence that Carter ever served as an activist.
- The film shows Artis and Carter as having solid alibis for where they were the night of the shooting, but each man, in real life, has given multiple, differentiating accounts of where they were the night of the murders. Several witnesses who would defend Carter in his trial later came forth and said that Carter had asked them to lie about his whereabouts that night.
- John Artis was about to go to college on an athletic scholarship at the time of the shootings. In real life, he had already been out of high school two years and hadn’t begun application processes for any universities or colleges. In fact, the character and importance of John Artis was under-portrayed in the film.
- In the film, middleweight contender Joey Giardello’s win over Carter is depicted as a “racist fix.” Several witnesses, including Carter himself, agree that Giardello had won the fight fairly and that no fix had been set. Giardello filed a lawsuit against the film’s producers over the depiction and the case was settled for an undisclosed amount.
- In interviews during the filming of the movie, Carter stated that he had spent most of his time in solitary confinement because he wouldn’t wear the prison-issued clothes, he wouldn’t speak to the guards, and he would barely eat the food. The film does show Carter being sent to the “hole” for not wear the prison garb as a protest of his innocence, but it does not emphasize the amount of time he spent in solitary confinement.
- Carter mentioned in an interview that he lost vision in one of his eyes while in prison, but that was not part of the movie.
- Carter’s Canadian supporters did, in fact, move from Toronto to New Jersey where the East Jersey State Prison (a.k.a. Rahway Prison) was located. However, the apartment they rented could only see the dome of the prison; it was not as close as depicted in the film, where he was able to look out his jail cell and see them waving.
- While the film focused on the importance of Carter’s Canadian supporters, it also downplayed the heroic efforts of his lawyers, whose strategy was to expose that the prosecution had withheld evidence to disproved the identifications made by Mr. Bello, their star witness. The movie shows Carter and Artis as being “exonerated.” In real life, however, the case was thrown out because it was decided that most of the evidence had been mishandled and that the two men hadn’t received a fair trial. The state of New Jersey didn’t pursue another trial following Carter and Artis’ release because an extensive amount of time had passed and the state ultimately withdrew the indictments against them in 1988, 22 years after the initial accusations.
Research online shows that the true story of Rubin Carter is a lot more complex and controversial than how it was told in the movie. He wasn’t as squeaky-clean a character as depicted in the film, he hadn’t been singled out by a racist detective, and the uncertainty by which the plausible evidence was obtained exposed the frailty in the criminal justice system. Here are links to a few sites which explore Carter’s story in more detail:
- “The Hurricane” Misleads a Trusting Public – highlights some main mis-truths from the movie. Within this site are hyperlinks to actual police reports from the case and portions of an audio transcript where Bello identifies Rubin Carter and John Artis as the gunmen.
- Separating Truth From Fiction in ‘The Hurricane’ – written by Selwyn Raab on December 28, 1999, one night before the premier of “The Hurricane”. The article compares events from real life with how they were told in the movie. Raab had unique insight because he was an investigative reporter for The New York Times and had covered Rubin Carter’s case since the 1970s.
- Sports of The Times; One Man Carter Movie Ignored – As Denzel Washington, who portrayed Rubin Carter in “The Hurricane”, wins the Golden Globe for best actor in a drama, Dave Anderson publishes this article on February 6, 2000 citing the inaccuracies in the movie.
- Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, Boxer Found Wrongly Convicted, Dies at 76 – more than 14 years after his initial article, Selwyn Raab writes this chronological biography of Carter’s life on April 20, 2014, the day of Carter’s death.
Where are they Now?
Rubin Carter and his first wife, Mae Thelma, divorced in 1984; together, the couple had a son and daughter. A year later on November 8, 1985, District Judge Haddon Lee Sarokin ruled that Rubin Carter and John Artis would be free men, due to the fact that “extensive record clearly demonstrates that petitioner’s convictions were predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.” For the next three years, the state of New Jersey appealed Sarokin’s decision all the way to the United States Supreme Court, until a Passaic County (NJ) state judge formally dismissed the case in February 1988 and put an end to the saga that lasted 22 years.
Finally free, Carter moved to Toronto, Canada, to live in the same commune as Lesra Martin, Sam Chaiton, Terry Swinton, and Lisa Peters, the primary benefactors that helped set Carter and Artis free. He worked with Chaiton and Swinton to publish a book in 1991, Lazarus and the Hurricane: The Untold Story of the Freeing of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter. He and Peters developed a relationship and are technically still married, though Carter states that their “marriage” was never consummated. The two separated when Carter left the commune in 1994. While the commune served as a comfortable “halfway house” for Carter upon his release, he said that over time, it began to feel like prison again, prompting Carter to move out.
From 1993 through 2005, he served as the executive director of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted and was invited to serve as a motivational speaker. On October 14, 2005, he received two honorary Doctorates of Law, one from York University (Toronto, Ontario, Canada) and one from Griffith University (Brisbane, Queensland, Australia), in recognition of his work with AIDWYC and the Innocence Project.
While attending the International Justice Conference in Burswood, Western Australia, in March 2012, Carter revealed that he had terminal prostate cancer and according to his doctors, had between three and six months to live. Shortly after that, John Artis moved in to live with and care for Carter until his death on April 20, 2014.
Lesra Martin completed his BA in Anthropology at the University of Toronto in 1988 and earned his Law degree Dalhousie Law School in 1997. He served as Crown Prosecutor in Kamloops, British Columbia and becaome one of the most prominent Canadian Barristers.
Currently, he is part of the Martin & Martin Lawyers, a law firm he started with his wife, Cheryl Martin (his email is: email@example.com and here’s his LinkedIn profile). He’s also written a book and tours as a motivational speaker. His website, Lesra.com, talks about his background, his journey, and his role as a motivational speaker. He has appeared on shows such as “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and “Larry King Live”, as well as numerous Universities and Corporate groups. He was the subject of a documentary called “The Journey of Lesra Martin,” which depicts his efforts to free Carter from prison.
John Artis quickly found trouble after being released from jail in 1985. In April 1986, he was arrested along with 11 other people in a drug sweep in Passaic County. On June 1st, 1987, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to distribute cocaine and to receiving a stolen handgun, in exchange for dismissal of two other drug counts. He was sentenced to six years in prison on drug and weapons charges. Artis said that he started using cocaine after reading in a medical journal that the drug could help slow the spread of Buerger’s disease, a genetic and incurable circulatory illness that has resulted in the amputation of parts of five toes and two fingers.
Artis is often known as “the man in the background” in the case, partly due to Carter’s outspoken nature and his high-profile celebrity status as a world-class boxer, and partly due to Artis’ introverted personality.
Artis is now an ambassador spokesman for Innocence Canada (formerly the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted or AIDWYC), the Canadian non-profit organization in which Carter was also involved. The following is an interview where Artis tells his story and how to make it easier for those who are wrongfully convicted to appeal their fate.
Lisa Peters, Sam Chaiton, and Terry Swinton returned to their Canadian commune after the case. Chaiton described the commune as a “group of friends from University days, and in business together, going back to 1979”. Other sources, including from former members, described the commune as very insular and having an “us-against-the-world” mentality build on the distrust of the outside world. In Carter’s own words, “When you live in that house, you do not talk to anybody outside that house, and once you’ve left that house you no longer talk to anybody in that house.”
With Carter’s help, Chaiton and Swinton published Lazarus and the Hurricane in 1991, on which the movie was based (Lazarus is the bibilical name for Lesra).
Lisa Peters, who goes by her married name Lisa Carter, has been described as a “petty tyrant.” Debra Unger, who played Lisa in the movie, had this to say: “Lisa, in real life, was balanced by the other women who were in the household. She is a very forward, forthright, powerful and sometimes overwhelming character, as well as a very compassionate and lovely woman.”
According to multiple articles, the group started a hat business called “Big It Up” back in 1996, but it’s uncertain if they are still involved in the company today.
Selwyn Raab was not featured in the movie, but the journalist and former investigative reporter for The New York Times wrote extensively about Carter’s case. His investigations and reports exposed perjury and police misconduct, which were instrumental in the release of Carter and Artis.
Raab was looped into Carter’s case by Richard Solomon, who in 1969, was a young filmmaker that wanted to make a documentary about Carter’s life. Solomon needed a respected journalist that would research the case, and Raab was that person. Raab had built a reputation reporting on the murder of two women in Manhattan ten years earlier, which led to the movie and TV series Kojak.
Raab realized the importance of being the lead journalist in breaking story such as this, plus had boxed as a youngster and liked to root for the underdog. He agreed to engage, but Solomon (and Carter) would have to accept the results of his investigation even if it proved Carter guilty. As Raab conducted interviews and uncovered facts about the case, he found events and behavior that was inconsistent with someone who was being accused of murder, and evidence that the lead witnesses (Bradley and Bello) had not been completely truthful.
As a result of his investigative reporting, Carter’s case was dismissed. Raab continued to periodically write about Carter, and his experience with the case offered a unique insight into the truth versus fiction when The Hurricane was released in 1999. A day after Rubin Carter’s death, Raab appeared on PBS to discuss how and why Carter’s story had such an impact on society since the 1960’s.