It had seemed a last chance, and now came a Friday in Newark in 1985. It was Nov. 8, and the clock headed toward 3 p.m., according to Bob McHugh of the Associated Press. A packed courtroom listened to a federal judge . . .
. . . "I cannot in the face of the conclusions reached in my opinion and the injustices found permit Mr. Carter to spend another day or even an hour in prison . . ."
Mr. Carter wore street clothes. He had entered the courtroom sans handcuffs. He had a head full of hair, different from the early-to-mid-1960s when Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was a bald, goateed, rugged, famous middleweight boxer not given to finesse. Four exhilarated lawyers flanked him.
In the room sat Mr. Carter's fellow defendant, John Artis, whose own imprisonment had stretched from 1967 through 1981, save for eight months in 1976 . . . had stretched through the first jury conviction in 1967 and the second jury conviction that overturned an overturn in 1976 . . . had continued even through an offer of freedom because Artis would not agree to say that Carter committed the triple murder at the Lafayette Bar and Grill in June 1966 in Paterson, N.J., because, Artis said, he had been raised that it was wrong to lie.
Judge H. Lee Sarokin had issued a 70-page ruling one day prior. He had found the December 1976 conviction that reinstated Carter's two life sentences "predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure." He had found the prosecution's tack unfounded and its withholding of a lie-detector test unacceptable. Now he spoke . . .
". . . He has already spent almost 20 years in confinement based in part upon a conviction which I have found to be so constitutionally flawed."
Bob Dylan had written and sung an eight-minute song about Carter in 1975. Muhammad Ali had argued on his behalf. The main witness had recanted his testimony in 1974 then recanted the recanting in 1976. A group of Canadians including Lisa Peters, Terry Swinton, Kathy Swinton and Sam Chaiton, and a young American they had taken in, Lesra Martin, had worked for years on the cause, inspired first by Carter's book from prison, The 16th Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472. It had been 19 years since that wee hour in 1966 when police first stopped Carter, then 29, and Artis, then 19, before letting them go, 19 years since a witness at the hospital said they had not been the shooters in the bar.
A prosecutor argued that Carter remained "a violent, dangerous man." That would prove untrue. A prosecutor argued that "every aspect of his background suggests a man who is a risk to the community." That would prove untrue. There was talk of his "grandiose and paranoid delusions." Those would prove untrue. A prosecutor said, "We think we're going to get this opinion reversed."
That would prove untrue.
The appeals would last until 1988, when Passaic County finally dropped the charges.
"If my ruling is correct, Mr. Carter's past imprisonment may have been a travesty. To continue it would be an even greater one. Human decency mandates his immediate release."
The courtroom erupted in applause. Carter smiled hugely. He hugged his lawyers. Artis told reporters, "We finally made it." Carter exited without spending one more hour in prison and without stopping for reporters or photographers. He had survived 19 years in prison. He had withstood the suspension and resumption of his sentence in the mid-1970s, the demoralizing decision by 4-3 in 1982 from the Supreme Court of New Jersey. He had strained to stanch the bitterness he knew would ruin him.
He would live 28 more years and five more months beyond Nov. 8, 1985. He would become the first executive director of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Accused. He would see his awful plight depicted in a movie, advocate for others he thought shared it, stand at the Golden Globes alongside the great actor who played him, Denzel Washington, as Washington said, "This man here is love."
But before Carter left the court that Friday midafternoon, in a moment that must have been impossible to characterize, he embraced Artis. Some 10,390 days later, on Sunday in Toronto, in a moment that must have been impossible to characterize, Artis was with Carter as Carter, 76, left the world.