'Hurricane' Carter went to the mat for the wrongfully accused

OPINION - In many ways, he helped open the eyes of many to the injustices of a system that far too often throws innocent people behind bars...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

With the death of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, we have lost a great fighter in the ring and a powerful advocate for the wrongfully convicted.  In many ways, he helped open the eyes of many to the injustices of a system that far too often throws innocent people behind bars.

Carter knew firsthand about the plight of the wrongly accused because he had spent 19 years behind bars for crimes he did not commit.  He and co-defendant John Artis were charged with a triple murder at the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, New Jersey in 1966.  There was little physical evidence in the case, and the so-called eyewitnesses who testified against them were two convicted felons.  And Carter and Artis maintained their innocence and passed a lie detector test.  However, an all-white jury found them guilty.  Carter was sentenced to three life sentences.

A victim of an unfair trial with corrupt prosecutors who originally sought the death penalty, Hurricane Carter was released after two decades in prison, including time in solitary confinement.  A federal judge found that the prosecution of his case was “predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure.” Specifically, “the jury was permitted to draw inferences of guilt based solely upon the race” of the defendants, according to the judge.

I first met Mr. Carter in 1999 in New York, when I was working as a human rights activist.  What struck me most about the man was the power of his spirit and the positivity he exuded, despite all that had happened in his life.  Moreover, he was part of the solution to a systemic problem.  At the time, he was the executive director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), a nonprofit organization based in Toronto.  We were at the United Nations for a special screening of his biopic The Hurricane, which starred Denzel Washington— who was nominated for an Oscar and was also present at the event.  The film was inspired by the 1975 autobiography Carter had written while on lockdown, The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472.

Back then, the issue of the wrongfully convicted was not on the radar screen for many Americans, including the black community.  Too often, we assume the prisons are filled with “those bad people” and everyone is guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted.  The criminal justice system is there to protect us, we have always assumed.  Lock ‘em up and throw away the key, with no questions asked by society.  This is business as usual in America, the world’s largest jailer.

And yet, Carter has helped to give innocence a human face and make the public realize that he was not an aberration, and that the problem of sending the innocent to prison is real and far more widespread than people have cared to believe or to understand.

The National Registry of Exonerations lists every known exoneration in the U.S. since 1989, which stands at around 1,351 cases.  Not surprisingly, the majority of those exonerated are people of color, including 46 percent black, 11 percent Latino, and 2 percent Native American or Asian.  This means 41 percent of exonerated Americans are white.

According to the National Registry, the contributing factors leading to wrongful convictions include perjury and false accusation (56 percent of cases), official misconduct (46 percent), mistaken witness identification (37 percent), false or misleading forensic evidence (22 percent) and false confessions (12 percent).

Thanks to the work of the Innocence Project, the Innocence Network and others, innocent men and women are being released from prison, including 314 through DNA testing.

To the end, Rubin “Hurricane” Carter fought for the wrongfully convicted as he had once fought in the ring, with the type of passion that earned him his boxing nickname.  In February, Carter wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News with his dying wish: He asked the new Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, also a black man, to release David McCallum, a man who has been in prison for murder charges since 1985, the year Carter became a free man.

Thank you, Hurricane, for opening our eyes.  Raised in this country to believe the system works for everyone, and accepting it without question, we simply did not know any better.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove