04/24/2014 06:46 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2014

Hurricane Carter's 'Pig-Circus' Trials

Here comes the story of the Hurricane
The man the authorities came to blame
For something that he never done
Put him in a prison cell but one time he could have been
The champion of the world.

-"Hurricane," Bob Dylan

Rubin Carter, who died a few days ago at 76, emerged from the broken streets of Paterson, New Jersey, to become a symbol of the racial violence and urban upheaval inflaming the U.S. in the 1960s. Known as "Hurricane" for his ferocity as a professional boxer, Carter's life has been widely chronicled in literature, song, and film. The central chapter of his story is the 19 years he spent in a prison cell, his heroic efforts at exoneration and freedom, and his scornful defiance of his jailers. Was Carter guilty of murdering three people in a Paterson, New Jersey bar in 1966? Dylan's anthem proclaims that Carter "was obviously framed, and couldn't help but make me feel ashamed to live in a land where justice is a game." The prosecutors who tried Carter in two trials, and the juries that convicted him, believe otherwise.

Whether Carter, along with John Artis, were guilty or innocent will never be known for certain. What is certain, however, is that Carter and Artis were denied fair trials because of the deliberate misconduct by the Passaic County prosecutors. Carter's and Artis' convictions after their first trial were reversed by the New Jersey Supreme Court based on the prosecution's subornation of perjury from two key witnesses and concealment of crucial exculpatory evidence. Carter's and Artis' convictions following their retrial were vacated by a federal district court based on the prosecutor's concealment, once again, of critical exculpatory evidence and inflaming the jury with an appeal to racial prejudice. There is strong reason to endorse Dylan's lyrics: "The trial was a pig circus he never had a chance."

Notably absent from the reflections on Carter's life is a reference to the shameful conduct of the officials responsible for destroying much of Carter's life -- and certainly preventing him from ever becoming middleweight champion of the world. It was the Passaic County prosecutors and their police helpers who orchestrated Carter's and Artis' fall. These officials have never been held accountable for their misconduct. Still, those who follow the justice system carefully, and the often wayward conduct of prosecutors, need to be reminded, lest they forget, how prosecutors in their zeal to convict lose their way, and destroy lives.

The three victims -- the bartender at the Lafayette Bar and Grill and two patrons -- were gunned down by two black men at 2:30 a.m. on June 17, 1966. The victims were all white, and it was suspected to be retaliation for the shotgun murder earlier that night of a black tavern owner by a white man. Carter and Artis were stopped by police because the white sedan they were driving resembled the getaway car described by a witness. But Carter and Artis were cleared; a patron in the bar who was wounded and another witness told the police that Carter and Artis were not the killers, the two had strong alibis, and both passed polygraph tests. And they testified voluntarily in a grand jury.

A few months later, however, Carter and Artis were indicted for first degree murder. They were identified by two witnesses -- Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley -- who were in the process of burglarizing a nearby building when they said they heard gunfire and saw Carter and Artis flee the tavern with guns. Even without any proof of a motive, and despite the alibis, the all-white jury convicted Carter and Artis based on Bello's and Bradley's testimony.

But Bello and Bradley lied. They lied about deals they made with the prosecution in exchange for their testimony. Moreover, they both recanted their testimony, claiming they were pressured by the prosecution to falsely accuse Carter and Artis. One powerful piece of evidence, which the prosecutor hid from the defense, was a tape recording of an interview by the prosecutor's lead investigator -- a member of the prosecutor's staff -- with Bello. As the transcript shows, Bello in the beginning tells the investigator he is unable to identify Artis and is not sure about Carter, or the make of the white car he had seen near the bar. However, as the interview progresses, and after the investigator makes numerous assurances and promises to Bello of lenient treatment for his pending crimes, and helping him get his parole dropped, Bello becomes much more positive in his identification of Carter and Artis. Indeed, three days later he gave a written statement to the authorities positively identifying Carter and Artis as the two men he saw fleeing from the bar. Bradley also was promised help with several pending charges and future sentencing. At trial, however, Bello and Bradley swore under oath that no promises were made to them, and the prosecutor sat by silently, allowing these witnesses to commit perjury.

Carter's and Artis' retrial in 1976 featured only Bello as the prosecution's key witness; he had recanted his recantation prior to trial. But given Bello's dishonest testimony in the first trial, and his continued revising his story until, as one court observed, his account "became unrecognizable," the prosecution faced a difficult challenge to win new convictions. The challenge appeared even more daunting because Bello swore in an affidavit in 1975 that he was "in the bar" when the shootings occurred, not outside the bar, as he had testified previously, and a polygraph expert retained by the prosecution concluded that Bello was telling the truth when he claimed he was "in the bar." Faced with this additional blow to Bello's credibility, the prosecutor concealed the polygraph expert's report, and made sure that Bello testified consistently with his testimony in the first trial. But hiding the expert's conclusion is a serious constitutional violation. Indeed, as Federal District Judge Lee Sarokin observed in vacating the convictions and freeing Carter and Artis, "a more egregious violation is difficult to imagine."

Clearly, the prosecutor needed to shore up his case some other way. There was no new proof. However, the prosecutor concocted a spanking new theory to win convictions, the "Racial Revenge Theory," as Judge Sarokin called it. This insidious gambit sought to incite the jury against Carter and Artis by arguing that the two killed the white bartender in retaliation for the killing of a black bar owner earlier that night. There were significant problems with this approach, however. First, the race theory did not fully explain the killings of the two bar patrons. But much more importantly, as Judge Sarokin noted, there was absolutely no proof against Carter and Artis to support the racial revenge theory. There was no evidence that either Carter or Artis knew that it was a white man who killed the black bar owner, or that even if they knew, they would have reacted in such a vicious and violent manner.

How could a jury buy such a blatant appeal to racial prejudice? The prosecutor knew that Paterson in the 1960s, as with so many other American cities, as well as other countries, experienced racial turmoil, race riots, and senseless violence. The prosecutor sought to exploit the jury's racial prejudices by imputing this motive for revenge on the entire black community, and thus onto Carter and Artis. Citing racial conflicts among Greeks and Turks and Irish (some of whom were on the jury) the prosecutor argued in his summation that "No group is immune from hate;" "Revenge is one of the most powerful motives;" "What other reason could [the murders] have happened for?" "In essence," Judge Sarokin observed, "the prosecution was permitted to argue to the jury that defendants who were black were motivated to murder total strangers solely because they were white." In vacating Carter's and Artis' convictions and granting them their freedom, Judge Sarokin concluded:

"For the state to contend that an accused has the motive to commit murder solely because of his membership in a racial group is an argument which should never be permitted to sway a jury or provide the basis of a conviction."

Dylan's lyrics conclude somewhat wistfully:

That's the story of the Hurricane
But it won't be over till they clear his name
And give him back the time he's done
Put him in a prison cell but one time he could a been
The champion of the world.