EJI Celebrates the Life and Triumph of Rubin Carter


Star boxer Rubin Carter, who spent 19 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of murder in New Jersey, died on Sunday at age 76. A long time advocate for the importance of habeas corpus and protecting the rights of accused and imprisoned people, Mr. Carter spent most of his life educating people about the importance of fair and reliable administration of criminal justice.

Mr. Carter was being treated for prostate cancer in Toronto, where he founded a nonprofit organization, Innocence International, to advocate on behalf of wrongfully convicted prisoners.

A headlining boxer with a great deal of charisma and a powerful left hook, Mr. Carter was charged with shooting two white men and a white woman in a bar in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1966. Three alibi witnesses placed him elsewhere on the night of the murders, but two white prosecution witnesses with long criminal records testified that they saw Mr. Carter and his co-defendant leave the bar holding guns. Mr. Carter was convicted and sentenced to 30 years to life.

Mr. Carter had an eighth-grade education but survived imprisonment by reading law books, philosophy, history, metaphysics, and religion. He wrote briefs requesting a new trial, which were denied. He refused to wear a prison uniform or work a prison job but he was credited with trying to calm down a prison riot in 1971 and he saved the life of a prison guard.

In 1974, New Jersey Public Defenders and the New York Times obtained recantations from the State’s witnesses, who said police pressured them to falsely identify Mr. Carter and his co-defendant in exchange for leniency in their own criminal cases. The New Jersey Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1976 and Mr. Carter became nationally known, with Bob Dylan and others giving concerts to raise money for his defense.

At a second trial in 1976, prosecutors charged that the defendants had committed the murders to get revenge for the earlier killing of a Black tavern owner by the bar’s previous white owner. One of the State’s witnesses recanted his recantation and was the only witness to place Mr. Carter at the scene. He was convicted again. After nine years of failed appeals in state court, a federal court ruled in 1985 that the State’s use of the racial revenge theory, without evidence, had “fatally infected the trial” and that prosecutors had illegally withheld evidence disproving the witness identification. Mr. Carter was released, and the charges were formally dismissed in 1988.

Mr. Carter moved to Toronto and founded Innocence International in 2004. He lectured about inequality in the criminal justice system and in 2011 published an autobiography, “Eye of the Hurricane: My Path From Darkness to Freedom.” He continued to advocate for the wrongfully imprisoned until his last moments, most recently for the exoneration of David McCallum, incarcerated in New York on murder charges since 1985.

In a February opinion article asking the Brooklyn district attorney to grant a full hearing for Mr. McCallum, Mr. Carter wrote: “To live in a world where truth matters and justice, however late, really happens, that world would be heaven enough for us all.”