Earlier this week, I wrote about the amazing grace shown by Kings County District Attorney Ken Thompson and his Conviction Review Unit ("CRU") to David McCallum when he agreed to vacate David's murder conviction after David had served nearly twenty-nine years in prison for a murder he did not commit. I don't intend to dwell on this topic much further but there's one more astonishing act of grace -- from the most unlikely of sources -- I feel compelled to testify to. And it concerns David's greatest champion -- Dr. Rubin "Hurricane" Carter.
Rubin, a former top-ranked contender for boxing's middleweight crown, had his career cut short when he was charged in 1966 with a triple murder in Paterson, N.J. and wrongfully convicted in 1967. Rubin spent nineteen years in a New Jersey prison before he was freed. After his release, Rubin moved to Toronto, Canada and later formed Innocence International, an organization dedicated to freeing the wrongfully convicted. Had Rubin not opened a letter from David and taken an interest in his case, David would still be in prison today. According to Rubin, his aim in helping McCallum was to "pay it forward," meaning that Rubin wanted to give to McCallum the same kind of help that he had received as a wrongfully convicted man.
Rubin assembled a team of lawyers and advocates from Canada and the United States to work on David's case -- a similar team of Canadians and Americans helped free Rubin -- but soon thereafter Rubin was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He continued to advocate for David, devoting a chapter of his memoirs to David's case, but the cancer began to take its toll. In a final act of grace, as he lay dying, he wrote a letter to District Attorney Thompson, asking the DA to grant him a final wish -- to give Mr. McCallum a full and fair hearing by the CRU. Rubin died on April 20, 2014 before he could see that his wish had been granted.
Although Rubin was not present in the courtroom when David was exonerated, his spirit permeated the entire day's proceedings. On the day of David's release the CRU dispatched two detectives to pick David McCallum up from Otisville prison and transport him to court. The detectives - two hardboiled, straight out of central casting, former N.Y.P.D. cops - had a surprise waiting for David for the car ride home. One of the detectives had pre-programmed his I-pod prior to the trip. At an opportune moment during the ride, he hit the play button. Soon, the car was filled with the sounds of "Hurricane", Bob Dylan's epic ballad about Rubin, a protest song which galvanized public support for Rubin and was instrumental in Rubin's release.
To David, who grew up in an era of cassette tapes, 8-tracks, and vinyl, the I-pod itself must have blown his mind. But the music -- it must have seemed like it was heaven-sent.
What possessed these detectives to act with such astonishing grace to a convicted murderer, a man whom they had only just met?
The answer is that grace is contagious. Rubin Carter's letter to the District Attorney was an act of grace. The leadership of the District Attorney has created a special espirit de corps among all of the members of the CRU, including the detectives, one that inspired many of its members to attend the press conference, to greet David with a handshake or a hug before court, and to join in the cheers and tears of David's supporters when David's conviction was finally vacated in court. It was that same contagious spirit that inspired the detectives to play "Hurricane" for David.
In his final letter to District Attorney Thompson, Rubin Carter wrote:
If I find a heaven after this life, I'll be quite surprised.
In my own years on this planet, though, I lived in hell for the first 49 years,
and have been in heaven for the past 28 years.
To live in a world where truth matters and justice, however late, really happens,
that world would be heaven enough for us all.
For at least a few hours last week in Brooklyn, I inhabited a world where truth and justice mattered. It is not a world I get to inhabit often. I witnessed a slice of Rubin's heaven. And I know - somewhere, somehow - Rubin witnessed it too.