Hurricane Carter Saga | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Hurricane Carter Saga

This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on December 6, 1999. Partner content is not updated.

He was down for the count. Rubin (Hurricane) Carter had been in prison for 13 years, serving a life sentence for a triple murder he did not commit - a brutal slaying at a bar in Paterson, N.J., in 1966.

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 his 10-foot cell/An innocent man in a living hell. - Bob Dylan, Hurricane

He was down for the count. Rubin (Hurricane) Carter had been in prison for 13 years, serving a life sentence for a triple murder he did not commit - a brutal slaying at a bar in Paterson, N.J., in 1966. His career as prizefighter, a top middleweight contender, was over. He was blind in one eye, the result of a botched operation by a prison doctor. In the 1970s, immortalized in a Bob Dylan song, Carter had watched the celebrities come and go. From Muhammad Ali to Burt Reynolds, they had rallied to free the Hurricane. But in 1976, after seeing his conviction overturned, he had been re-convicted in a second trial on the same fraudulent evidence. By 1980, at the age of 43, Carter was resigned to his fate. He had stopped seeing visitors. He had cut himself off from the world.

Then he got a letter from Canada.

It came from Lesra Martin, a 17-year-old black kid from the Brooklyn ghetto who had been adopted and educated by a commune of Canadians living in a luxurious Toronto home. Martin had picked up Carter's 1974 autobiography, The Sixteenth Round, at a Toronto Public Library warehouse sale. It moved him to write the letter, then visit Carter at New Jersey's Trenton State Prison. Martin's Canadian housemates would follow. And for the next five years they devoted themselves to Carter's cause. They moved to New Jersey, uncovered fresh evidence that he had been framed by corrupt officials, and finally helped to win his 1985 exoneration in a U.S. federal court - a verdict that freed him and his co-defendant, John Artis, who had been convicted of the same crime.

But once Carter was out of prison, his story took a bizarre twist. Entering another kind of confinement, he spent the better part of six years living in the isolation of the Canadian commune - and entered a volatile marriage with the group's queen bee - before finally striking out on his own. He now lives in Toronto, working to free other wrongly convicted prisoners. Meanwhile, Lesra Martin, the kid plucked from the streets of Brooklyn, grew up to be a lawyer and landed in Kamloops, B.C. - where, ironically, he works as a Crown prosecutor.

Carter's remarkable odyssey is now the subject of an inspirational movie by Canadian director Norman Jewison. For the 73-year-old veteran, who has not had a hit since Moonstruck (1987), The Hurricane marks a triumphant comeback. Independently produced under considerable duress, it is his first non-studio picture. It is also his first proudly Canadian story. And this, his 24th movie, may well be the finest of his career. Although Hurricane will not be released until the end of the year, Denzel Washington's searing performance in the title role is already generating Oscar buzz. And this week, Carter and Washington are expected to attend a screening at the White House. After In the Heat of the Night (1967) and A Soldier's Story (1984), Jewison's landmark civil-rights dramas, The Hurricane completes a de facto trilogy about racial injustice. "It's a subject," he says, "that has haunted me all my life."

Jewison's uplifting epic accords Carter a poetic justice long overdue, portraying him with a mythic resonance that calls to mind the struggles of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Meanwhile, the Canadians who rode to his rescue are portrayed as a mysterious trio of cheery, self-effacing heroes. In fact, Lisa Peters, Sam Chaiton and Terry Swinton belonged to a commune of a dozen members. It was not a stereotypical commune - it had no religion or ideology (aside from astrology), and drugs, alcohol and promiscuity were strictly forbidden. Born out of the student left of the '60s, it was an insular household of entrepreneurial activists who lived together, sharing a single bank account. "When you live in that house," Carter explains, "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."

Carter still tends to speak of the group in glowing terms. But a new authorized biography, due out in January, tells another story. In Hurricane: The Miraculous Journey of Rubin Carter, by former Wall Street Journal reporter James S. Hirsch, Carter complains that, after his release, the Toronto commune became "another prison" and that he became "a trophy horse to fill the coffers." Lisa is depicted as a petty tyrant. And Carter, who is now separated from her, maintains their marriage was never consummated, and that he was horrified when she suggested he get a vasectomy. "Hell no," he told her. "You can't ask a black man to do that!"

Former members of the commune also allege that it was homophobic, anti-Semitic and intolerant of outsiders, charges that make Chaiton and Swinton shake their heads in disbelief. "It's so absurd, it's shocking," says Chaiton, 49, pointing out that his parents were Jewish survivors of the Bergen-Belsen death camp while Swinton, 53, is the nephew of an Austrian SS officer. "What made our group so powerful is that we were able to come together from different backgrounds."

But the commune's inner harmony was founded on a distrust of the outside world, according to former members. "They had a very us-against-them mentality," Hirsch told Maclean's. "They were paranoid. Those attributes were perfect in helping Rubin - they had a clear enemy, the state of New Jersey." But their insularity became oppressive once Carter was free, he adds. "Rubin has conflicting feelings about the group. He will always be grateful and will never speak ill of them. But they also humiliated Rubin and became his jailers."

Hirsch's portrayal of the Canadians reads like one side of a divorce case. The commune leaders refused to speak to him, they explain, because his book would be competing with their book, Lazarus and the Hurricane, which Chaiton and Swinton published in 1991 and are now reissuing to capitalize on the film. Aggravating matters, Carter and his Canadian saviours will go head-to-head with competing book tours in January - the Hurricane is going on the road with Hirsch.

Despite the rift, all parties are supporting the movie. Everyone involved recognizes the power and authenticity that Denzel Washington brings to the role of the Hurricane. The actor, who shed 44 lb. to play the boxer in fighting trim, delivers a devastating performance that outstrips his Oscar-nominated brilliance in Malcolm X. Although the facts of the case are severely compressed, and the Canadians sketchily portrayed, the movie captures the complexity of Carter's tortured soul. And as the plucky young Lesra Martin, American actor Vicellous Shannon unlocks the story's emotional force. If movies are supposed to have universal appeal, Jewison has delivered a knockout punch - a Capraesque uppercut that strikes to the heart of Rubin's story.

But it did not come easily. "There were definitely big ego struggles in making this movie," says John Ketcham, who co-produced it with Jewison and Armyan Bernstein of Los-Angeles based Beacon Pictures. Jewison and Bernstein were often at odds over the script, with the commune leaders working behind the scenes with Bernstein. "But everyone realized that this story was bigger than any one person," says Ketcham. For the Canadian producer, The Hurricane is a dream come true. He grew up in Williams Lake, a tiny town near Prince George, B.C., where, as a boy he would sneak over the fence into the drive-in across from his house and watch movies while wrapped in a sleeping bag. At 29, Ketcham borrowed money from his family to buy the rights to Carter's story, and then spent almost a decade trying to make The Hurricane. It is his first feature.

For Carter, meanwhile, the movie serves as a final vindication. When it premièred at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, he electrified the audience with a rousing 20-minute speech before the movie, which runs almost 2½ hours. Then, after the closing credits, he basked in a 10-minute standing ovation.

Rubin Carter lives in a three-storey house in midtown Toronto. He also works there, as executive-director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC), which was originally formed for Guy Paul Morin. Dressed in a purple sweatshirt, blue jeans and black boots, Carter still looks like a trim middleweight, and younger than his 62 years. His hair, which he shaved in macho defiance for the first half of his life, is jet black. Rap music blares from a kitchen radio. On the wall is his one boxing memento, a gold and green championship belt that he received in 1993 - the only honorary belt ever awarded by the World Boxing Council.

Carter leads his visitor to a basement den. "We'll be quiet here," he says, as a statuesque young woman with a sunny smile delivers coffee. She is Teresa Brabham, 27. They met last summer at a convention of Subway sandwich managers in Reno, Nev., where he was delivering a motivational speech and she was representing a Subway franchise in South Carolina. Though still legally married to Lisa, Rubin now considers Teresa his wife.

Face to face, Carter has a penetrating intensity. Although he has just one good eye - the other is glass - his gaze seems stronger for it. His rich baritone has gospel cadence, a Southern warmth, and the wisdom of a man who has had more time than most to reflect on his fate. Although he suffered from a paralyzing speech impediment until the age of 18, he seems to have inherited the silver tongue of his Georgia-born father, who was a preacher. As Rubin talks, his stories are like polished stone, as well worn as a jailhouse floor. When he gets animated, his hands shift into a fighter's rhythm, feinting combinations.

He talks about the night of the murder. During the early hours of June 17, 1966, a bartender and two patrons, all of them white, were shot dead by two men at the Lafayette bar. Nineteen-year-old John Artis, a young football star with a college athletic scholarship, was driving Carter home from a different nightclub when the police pulled them over. "He'd never been in trouble with the police before," says Carter. "He was just asking me for a ride home, proud to be driving the Hurricane's car. And from that moment, John Artis had my life in his hands. If he had given any kind of statement to me to this crime, they would have burnt my ass to bacon rind."

Carter and Artis were cleared of suspicion after passing lie detector tests and voluntarily testifying before a grand jury. But four months later, they were charged after a criminal named Alfred Bello - who had stepped over the bodies to rob the cash register at the crime scene - claimed he had seen them fleeing the bar. An all-white jury convicted them. Bello and Arthur Bradley, the only witnesses, later recanted, saying the police extracted false testimony from them with inducements of $10,000 and promises of lenient treatment. But they again changed their story at the retrial, which reconvicted Carter and Artis, this time as killers motivated by racist revenge in retaliation for another murder - even though they didn't know the victims and there was no evidence they had ever entered the bar. Artis, who now counsels young convicts in Virginia, never did turn against Carter for his freedom. During his 19 years in jail, he contracted an incurable blood disease that led to the amputation of fingers and toes. "John Artis," says Carter, "is my hero."

Why did the New Jersey authorities pursue Carter with such a vengeance? He was a well-known, arrogant black man in a racist community. It was 1966, the year Stokely Carmichael launched the Black Power movement, the year after the assassination of Malcolm X, the year before boxer Muhammad Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to fight in Vietnam. Race riots were ripping through American cities, and Carter symbolized a threat. He says the authorities viewed him as "a highly trained savage. That was why I went to prison." He made his living with his fists. He had been convicted of assault and robbery as a teenager. He owned guns. In fact, as the book reveals for the first time, he smuggled four duffel bags of arms to freedom fighter Stephen Biko on his way to a 1966 fight in South Africa.

Carter also had an indomitable pride. To protest his innocence, he refused to wear a prison uniform, eat prison food or do prison work - an attitude that earned him a marathon ordeal in "the hole" as soon as he arrived. But he eventually got his way. He cooked his own food on a tiny burner in his cell. He buried himself in law books. And he wrote his autobiography. After his re-conviction, however, his morale collapsed.

Carter remembers stepping out to the prison yard for the first time in years in the late '70s. Once a paupers' cemetery, the yard was a rectangle of dirt, oiled to keep down the dust and flanked by walls with four guard towers. It was a sweltering summer day. "You got the sun beaming down," says Carter, "and you could see the heat waves coming off the soil. I sat down and looked at the wall. Suddenly I saw a pinprick of light. It starts moving and getting bigger. Bigger, brighter, bigger, brighter." Carter is jabbing at the words. "After a while I could see through the wall. I could see children passing by. I could see cars . . . freedom. As I reached out for it, it disappeared. But it left such a strong impression. I was going to find that hole in the wall again and walk right through. I went back to my cell and gave away all my law books. I then turned the prison into an unnatural laboratory for the human spirit. If there is such a thing as spirit, I was going to find it and develop it!" Carter breaks into a wild laugh. "Isn't that insane?"

By the time Lesra Martin and the Canadians came to visit, Carter had been immersed in books on metaphysics and philosophy. "I was eating only one eight-ounce can of soup every three days," he says. "I refused everything, because if I didn't have anything, the prison couldn't take anything away. Then these guys came in and said, 'Hey, Rube, wait a minute.' "

The Canadians first provided support and friendship. Then, in 1983, several of them moved to New Jersey to work full time with Carter's lawyers. To finance their campaign, they unloaded their cherished ravine mansion in Toronto. With profits from importing Malaysian batiks, they had bought the house seven years earlier for $190,000. Peter Herrndorf, then publisher of Toronto Life and now head of Ottawa's National Arts Centre, bought it for $540,000. At the height of the real estate boom, one of the country's media elite inadvertently ended up fuelling the Hurricane's campaign.

The Canadians "were my army," says Carter. "They made a commitment. They said, 'Rubin, we're here for the duration. We're here until you go home.' Nobody had ever made that commitment before." Uncovering fresh evidence, including a forged signature on a phone report falsifying the time of the crime, the Canadians served as dogged foot soldiers in a legal onslaught that culminated in the 1985 verdict freeing Carter. Judge H. Lee Sarokin said the prosecution had committed "grave constitutional violations" by basing its convictions on "racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure."

Had they lost, the Canadians had elaborate plans to help Carter escape and flee the country. As it turned out, with Carter free, they spent another three years fighting the prosecution's appeal, until it was finally thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court. The real culprits behind the shootings have never been found.

In prison, Carter had become a father figure to Lesra, and a soulmate to Lisa. He had divorced his first wife, and the Canadians were his new family. After his release, he moved to the commune's 19th-century country home outside Toronto. For a while, it served as a comforting halfway house for a man ill-prepared to face the world after being locked up for 19 years. The Canadians say they spent close to $1 million freeing Carter. Although they never pressed him for it, he felt he owed them a debt, which he says has now been repaid through the sale of his story. The movie rights alone totalled more than $1 million.

But Carter, who had developed a taste for solitude, chafed at communal living. In this house that prohibited liquor, he was also struggling with alcoholism. And he was constantly at odds with Lisa. After a string of splits and reconciliations, he quit the commune for good in 1994. "She couldn't leave, and I couldn't stay," he says. "I've always been the captain of my ship." Despite the rift, he still describes Lisa as "a great person, a beautiful person - certainly my match on earth."

Terry Swinton says that "she's better than his match." In the movie, as played by Deborah Kara Unger (Crash), Lisa "seems so demure," he adds. "But she's a very powerful personality. Those qualities are much more acceptable in a man than in a woman. So it's easy to misinterpret what she does." Swinton and Chaiton are both Lisa's ex-lovers, but they stress that the relationships did not overlap in the group - which they do not call a commune because of "the hippie free-love" connotation. "People assume everybody sleeps with everybody else," says Chaiton, "and that's just not the case."

The woman who is depicted as a charismatic tyrant in Hirsch's book says she is too shy to be interviewed. But Lisa agrees to talk off-the-record at the group's business in the Toronto garment district. The Canadians - as they are called by everyone connected with the Hurricane's story - are now in the business of selling hats. They have a company called Big It Up (named after a Jamaican idiom), and they specialize in the kind of bucket headwear favoured by hip-hop culture.

Dressed in black pants and a black sweater, Lisa sits curled up on a couch at the back of the Big It Up headquarters, a zaftig woman in her mid-50s with ash-blond hair and darting blue eyes. Around her neck is a native pendant, a wooden feather and beads on a rawhide string. She is a voluble personality. She speaks quickly and emotionally, moving her hands with lightning gestures. And tears start to well up as soon as she begins to talk about the group's history with Rubin.

It is obvious the Canadians feel betrayed by Carter's portrayal of them in Hirsch's biography. Chaiton, Swinton and Lisa Carter (she still goes by her husband's name) did not even show up at the Toronto festival première of The Hurricane. But they are not about to respond in kind. Instead, Swinton and Chaiton try to explain.

"Rubin was so used to resisting the system, whoever was around him was the enemy in his own mind," says Chaiton.

"Or like a guard," says Swinton. "If you say, 'Rubin, look, you gotta do this,' " he'd say, " 'I don't want to do that. Now I'm free.' "

At one point, the whole commune had stopped smoking. The book cites an incident in which Rubin flew into a rage as Chaiton frisked him for a cigarette pack - in prison Carter had a rule that he would kill anyone who touched him in anger. Chaiton explains that Carter was just playing the prison game of "sneaking things behind the guard's back" - and that he was trying to protect Carter, who was recovering from tuberculosis that he had contracted in prison. But that night Carter left the commune never to return.

The film's producers are now trying to downplay the animosity stirred up by Hirsch's book. "That's not the story I was telling," says Jewison, "or even part of it. Maybe there's a whole other picture to be made, but it wouldn't be very exciting or uplifting. It would be a picture filled with a broken marriage and a lot of angst." Carter himself is trying to put it all behind him, saying all that matters is "the miracle that occurred when ordinary people do something miraculous, not the bullshit that occurs when ordinary people are ordinary."

Certainly, Carter's David-and-Goliath struggle with the U.S. justice system makes the domestic squabbles that followed seem trivial. And for Jewison, The Hurricane has fulfilled a noble destiny, confirming his legacy as Hollywood's Canadian conscience on racial issues. Jewison remembers travelling through the Deep South back in 1946, fresh out of the Canadian Navy. One day he boarded a bus in his uniform and sat in the back. "You tryin' to be smart, sailor?" said the driver. "Can't you read the f - kin' sign?" He looked up to see a handpainted sign on a wire: "Colored people in the rear." The incident, and the spectacle of American apartheid, left an indelible impression. "Being a Canadian and never experiencing racial prejudice of that kind, I was overwhelmed."

The story of the The Hurricane has been rattling Jewison's door for 15 years. Hoping that a movie might help get Carter out of jail, the commune first contacted the director's office in 1985 and sent him a copy of The Sixteenth Round. And Ketcham approached Jewison in 1991, but was told to come back when he had some money and a script. Beacon ended up producing The Hurricane for about $40 million, half the typical Hollywood budget for an epic on that scale. Jewison and Washington both worked for half their usual fees. Although the director had creative control and final cut, he says he had "big problems with rewrites on the script - there was too much interference with my work."

Jewison says he also wondered if Washington, 44, could play an angry young fighter: "I said, 'I can't help you. You're going to be in the ring in a pair of shorts and boxing shoes. And have you still got any rage left in you? Can we press that button?' " But after training for six months, Washington arrived on the set in superb shape. And his portrayal is so precise that even Carter's close friends forget that the person onscreen is not the real Rubin.

The Hurricane has a story he likes to tell about Denzel Washington. He told it in his speech at the première. And in the interview, he tells it again, almost word for word. After days of talking and travelling with the actor, they were having lunch in Toronto. Carter got up to go to the washroom and, on his way back, he saw Washington staring at a mirror in the foyer.

"I thought he wanted to be alone, so I went back to the table. When he came back, there was something different about him. I couldn't put my finger on it. But the more we talked, the more I liked him. I liked the way he moved. I liked his vocabulary. I liked his stridency. And I loved his laughter. I said, 'Wow! I really love this guy. Shit, maybe I have been in jail too long!' Then it hit me, like a left hook and a straight right to the jaw. When I saw Denzel in front of the mirror, he was clearing his canvas to paint my portrait. His face looked like putty. And from the moment he sat down, he was giving me back to me. I was loving what I saw. I was loving me! I've always professed that I love myself, I respect myself. But I'd never seen myself. I said OK, I trust you."

After the interview, Carter takes his visitor out back, to his beloved garden. A curved stone path winds through a profusion of dying plants to a gazebo and upright stone slab. "They've all gone away, into the big sleep," he says, surveying the garden's grey November skeleton. "It's not big enough. I keep running out of room." Rubin glances at the one plant still blooming, a miracle of purple flowers. "Tonight, I've got to dig up that orchid and take it inside," he says, heading back into the house. Out front, an old blue Mercedes sedan sits in the drive. He says he likes to drive around at 2 or 3 in the morning, down by the lake, when there's nobody there.

Maclean's December 6, 1999

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