STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Hurricane Carter has died. He was 76 years old, a former boxer, a figure of controversy and, for some, a cause. Rubin Carter was his given name. He fought his first professional boxing match the day after he was released from prison in 1961. Later and more famously, he was in trouble with the law again, including on the night in 1966, when a triple murder was committed in Patterson, New Jersey.
The man known as Hurricane was convicted of that crime and spent nearly 20 years in prison for it, until his conviction was overturned. While he was in prison, Carter's cause was championed by the likes of Bob Dylan who wrote a song about him, and Denzel Washington who played him in a movie.
Jon Kalish interviewed Carter several times and has this remembrance.
JON KALISH, BYLINE: Boxing fans remember Rubin Carter as a ferocious fighter with a powerful left hook. He won 27 fights, 20 by knockout, and he came close to winning the middleweight crown in 1964. If you don't follow boxing, you might remember Bob Dylan's song "Hurricane," a Top 40 hit in 1975.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURRICANE")
BOB DYLAN: (Singing) Rubin Carter was falsely tried. The crime was murder one and guess who testified? Bellow and Bradley and they both baldly they lied. And the newspapers, they all went along for the ride...
KALISH: Bellow and Bradley were the only two prosecution witnesses in Carter's first trial in 1967. In June of the previous year, three white patrons of a Patterson, New Jersey bar were shot and killed by two black men. Carter and an acquaintance named John Artis were stopped by police, given lie detector tests and released. Two months later, they were charged with murder even though three witnesses testified that Carter was someplace else.
SELWYN RAAB: There's no doubt in my mind that he was falsely imprisoned. That's unquestionable.
KALISH: That's reporter Selwyn Raab who broke the story for the New York Times in 1974, when the two prosecution witnesses recanted their testimony to an investigator working on Carter's behalf.
RAAB: The police said that they had found in Carter's car a .32 caliber bullet. When I checked that out, I found they had not logged it into the detective's property book until four or five days after the crime, which seemed astonishing, that a major crime like this and they wouldn't log that in immediately. Moreover, the bullet that they found, although it was the same caliber, was of a different type than what was used in the killings.
KALISH: After Raab's story broke, Carter and John Artis were released. But after nine months of freedom, they were re-tried and convicted a second time. In prison, Carter became famous for devouring all the legal books he could get his hands on, refusing to eat prison food, wear a uniform or work a prison job, as he told me in 1991.
RUBIN HURRICANE CARTER: I would not help my keepers to keep me kept. I had only myself to work for; work for my freedom to keep my innocence alive.
KALISH: Carter became a cause célèbre. In addition to Dylan, the likes of Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez and Roberta Flack performed at benefit concerts for him. But Carter spent almost another decade behind bars before a federal judge overturned his conviction. Carter moved to Toronto to join a group of his supporters. One of them was Sam Chaiton. In a 1991 interview, he recalled meeting Carter for the first time in a New Jersey penitentiary.
SAM CHAITON: There was this incredible gentleness that radiated from Rubin that was so totally contrary, not only to the environment, but contrary to the image of what the Hurricane supposedly was. You know, this fierce fighter in the ring. And the image of this man who supposedly was a triple murderer.
KALISH: Chaiton and the other Canadian activists figured prominently in the 1999 film "The Hurricane." It brought Carter back into the public eye and earned Denzel Washington an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the former boxer.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HURRICANE")
LIEV SCHREIBER: (as Sam Chaiton) Mr. Carter. Rubin Hurricane Cater, that you?
DENZEL WASHINGTON: (as Rubin Hurricane Carter) Mm-hmm.
SCHREIBER: (as Sam Chaiton) I'm sorry, you don't look like your picture. I thought you'd be bigger.
WASHINGTON: (as Rubin Hurricane Carter) Yeah, I'm bigger than you. But don't tell anybody, OK?
KALISH: Carter said the movie was one of the high points of his life and a kind of public vindication, as he told me just before the film's debut.
CARTER: If you had gone through all that I have gone through, struggling constantly with mindless, knuckle-headed human beings, after spending 20 years in prison, almost being executed for something that I not only could not do but would not do and did not do, for me to be alive today is a miracle.
KALISH: Rubin Carter was born in 1937 in Clifton, New Jersey, one of seven children. Despite the fact that his father was a deacon in the Baptist church, Rubin was in and out of trouble for much of his childhood and adolescence. He said in his 1974 autobiography that he escaped reform school and joined the Army where he learned to box. As a celebrated prizefighter he became an outspoken civil rights activists. And after moving to Toronto he became active in groups advocating for the wrongfully convicted.
He was awarded honorary law degrees in Canada and Australia, and afterwards asked that he be addressed as Dr. Carter. He also spent time as a motivational speaker. Here Carter is talking to a high school outside Toronto in 1999.
CARTER: There are prisons made of brick, steel and mortar. And then there are prisons without visible walls, prisons of poverty, illiteracy, racism, drugs.
KALISH: Carter himself spent a quarter of his life in prison but he insisted it did not make him bitter.
CARTER: It would be very easy to be bitter. I have never done things the easy way. But if I never learned anything in my life, I learned that bitterness only consumes the vessel that contains it. If I was bitter then the prison would have won. And that's the thing that I cannot let happen. I cannot give the prison a victory.
KALISH: Rubin Carter was cared for during the last two years of his life by his co-defendant John Artis, who left his job in Virginia and moved to Toronto to look after Carter. New Jersey police never solved the triple murder for which Carter and Artis were originally convicted.
For NPR News, I'm Jon Kalish.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURRICANE")
DYLAN: (Singing) Here comes the story of the Hurricane, the man the authorities came to blame. For something...
INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURRICANE")
DYLAN: (Singing) Put in a prison cell, but one time he could've been. The world champion is the champion of the world. Three bodies lying there, does Patty see and another man named Bello... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.