BY COLE WILEY
Widely known through the 1999 film, The Hurricane, in which Denzel Washington gave an Oscar-nominated performance, Dr. Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter is a surprisingly affable man.
In 1966, Dr. Carter was convicted of a triple homicide that took place in his hometown of Paterson, NJ. Ever since his imprisonment, Carter’s guilt has been hotly debated. In 1974, Dr. Carter wrote his autobiography, The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472, which professed his innocence and highlighted the racism surrounding his wrongful conviction. The Sixteenth Round spawned an enormous amount of public support from the likes of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Johnny Cash, and Stevie Wonder, among others. In 1975, Bob Dylan recorded the song “Hurricane,” which championed Carter’s innocence. All this public sentiment seemingly went for naught after a failed appeal in 1976, but a writ of habeas corpus in federal court finally freed Dr. Carter in 1985. New Jersey prosecutors failed in their attempts to overturn the decision by appeal, and they chose not to try Carter a third time.
One might have expected Dr. Carter, a man imprisoned for twenty years, to be a weathered, hardened, and embittered gentleman, but he did not come across as such. “I have faith in the justice system,” Dr. Carter noted, “as long as I’m not involved in it.”
Phrases like these typified the passionately erudite commentary and accessible humor that Dr. Carter invoked in his address to Harvard Law students in Ames Courtroom on January 19th.
Dr. Carter, along with Kevin Wallen (director of SET – Students Expressing Truth) and attorney Courtney Kazembe spoke of restorative justice and its place alongside the criminal justice system. Professor Charles Nesson, founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at HLS, sponsored and hosted the event by facilitating questions from the audience.
Wallen and Kazembe, both of whom are Jamaican citizens, reflected on the initiative they have put in place to work with the Jamaican government to create a program of restorative justice that addresses the problems of Jamaican prisoners who are paroled from prison. Kazembe currently represents a controversial inmate by the name of Siccaturie Alcock, a.k.a. Jah Cure, a prominent reggae artist who was convicted of rape in 1999. Jah Cure, who is soon to be up for parole, has always maintained his innocence and has championed his cause through his music, much like Dr. Carter professed his innocence through The Sixteeth Round.
Dr. Carter’s words as the keynote speaker were much needed encouragement to idealistic law students who are still enamored by notions of justice. Dr. Carter was not shy about admitting the necessity of effective lawyering in the criminal courtroom, and he recognized that the absence of such attorneys leads to the downfall of many innocent men.
“The justice system can be very unjust,” Dr. Carter said. “Because I was a successful prize fighter, I had the money to pay for a first rate lawyer. It was my legal representation that saved my life.”
More than anything, Hurricane Carter’s story is a glaring example of how the criminal justice system is an imperfect machine of manufactured truth. Inquiring minds may differ over his guilt or innocence, but it would be exceedingly difficult to question the nature of the man that stood in Ames Courtroom.
The criminal investigation that was used to convict Dr. Carter was distorted by a shroud of doubt and injustice, and it was riddled with racism, ineptitude, dishonesty, and disturbingly incomplete information. All of these things made the man standing in Ames Courtroom seem even more phenomenal.
As sympathizers of Dr. Carter have asserted, through the legal system, New Jersey prosecutors composed a story that put Dr. Carter behind bars for 20 years. It is more than ironic that the cell which Dr. Carter found to be hell, where “nothingness is the only constant,” was the place in which he found the serenity that changed his life.
Dr. Carter believes that his experiences have allowed him to accomplish more than he could have as a free man. Through his nonprofit organization, Innocence International, Dr. Carter fights for the freedom of the wrongfully convicted. Innocence International provides legal representation to those individuals with long-term prison sentences whose convictions have been the product of institutional injustice.
In the ring, Dr. Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter was never able to attain a championship belt. Fortunately for us all, Dr. Carter has become a champion of something greater — a champion of justice.