Wednesday, 23 April 2014

HURRICANE CARTER: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obit of Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter is online at the Guardian now (link here) and should be in the paper paper soon. It is pretty much as I wrote it, which is good because it was very hard to write and stay within the word limit I was given; in the end, I exceeded it anyway.

I might have gone deeper into his boxing record had I the space, and one comment in the Guardian took me to task, but missed the point. I can't remember watching Carter fight at the time; oddly enough I watched more fights when I was slightly younger. But I have watched tape, and his record shows an umistakable decline after the loss to Giardello, he last fight of 1964, for which year Ring ranked him third among middleweights. He had dropped only two places, to fifth, in the 1965 ratings (published in March 1966) despite a record of 5-4 for the year. One loss was a unanimous decision to Dick Tiger, Ring's champion of the year (ironically Tiger would lose his title to Emile Griffith, whom Carter beat in '64). Tiger dominated the fight, knockin Carter down three times along the way. But Carter also lost in '65 to Harry Scott in London, and twice to Luis Manuel Rodriguez, neither of whom was ranked at middleweight.  Rodriquez was, however, the long-time number one contender (and brief champion) at welter behind Griffith, to whom he lost three out of four classic contests. Rodriquez was a master boxer, exactly the type who would give Carter the most problems. Of Carter's first four fights of 1966 (ie, before his arrest, I would discount the one afterwards, which he also lost) he won only one, losing to tenth-ranked Stan Harrington and unranked Johnny Morris. Obviously, Ring would not rate him for 1966.

The main element missing from the obit is the story of John Artis, 19 at the time, who was driving the car that night. After his arrest, and consistently throughout his imprisonment, Artis was offered the chance to testify against Carter, in return for lesser charges, or even, at one point, in return for taking the death penalty off the table. Some attributed that reluctance to fear, but when Carter was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Artis spent two more years of his life helping care for him, something you do not do for a man who has led you into trouble, or of whom you were afraid. 

The big problem was trying to explain the murder case succinctly, and the secondary problem was that, as you do so, the basic question of guilt and innocence becomes more and more difficult to resolve. I was too young to follow the trial at the time, but later I found it hard to totally accept his innocence--not least because The 16th Round seemed so self-serving, designed to push the right buttons. I've also heard second-hand hearsay, from a friend I trust, who knew someone closely involved in the campaign of support for Carter, who told him the only problem with the success of the campaign was that Carter was guilty. When Carter beat up Carolyn Kelly while free between his trials (she was the Muslim bail-bondsman sent by Muhammad Ali to help raise funds) it opened the window of disbelief that for many people had been shut.

But my mind remained open because it's important to remember the times, and I did and do. Not only was Paterson a racial powder keg, but Carter had been portrayed in the Saturday Evening Post as encouraging violence against, as we used to say, 'the man', particularly a police force that was at best still committed to enforcing a sort of de facto segregation. The idea that Carter was a marked man because he was some sort of activist leader is an exaggeration, but there is no doubt that the police knew who he was, because of his celebrity, his violent criminal record, and perhaps because of the Post comments (which Carter always denied). And there is no doubt that as an ex-con who was flaunting his success, he might have been a target of opportunity.

The case is a mess. The police work is at best sloppy, but it is quite easy to examine it and see the loopholes that would lead you to suspect witnesses were coached, coerced, or encouraged to testify in the most helpful way to the police case. The idea that they found in Carter's car one bullet each for a 12 gauge shotgun and a 32 pistol seems too pat, and the fact that the bullets took five days to be entered into evidence is in itself suspicious, as well as the fact that the .32 didn't match the bullets at the scene but did match police bullets.

And of course the witness testimony is fraught with problems, way beyond the utter lack of trustworthiness from Al Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley. At best the police seemed to be trying to over-egg the testimony, which Bello of course retracted and then unretracted. At worst they used the leverage they had over the two to get what they wanted. That he may have received offers from the Carter camp to retract doesn't boggle my mind or reverse what else might have been done. One of the interesting ideas I picked up while researching was to compare Bello and Carter, their records, their lives. Willie Marins' inability to identify Carter is a positive, but Hazel Tavis, the third victim, apparently did identify him before dying; even were that ID allowed in court, it would be have been challenged.

The police may have missed the boat by not using the revenge motive at the first trial. It not only provided an explanation of why, it fitted the angry profile of Carter at the time. Eddie Rawls' stepfather had been shot by the white man who'd sold him his bar; it was a business dispute but the killing was racially charged. If Carter had headed out on an impulse for revenge, it would then explain his car's movements after the shooting: including stopping at Rawls' place where weapons might have been stashed. By the time it was introduced at the second trial, it was indeed a play on racial prejudice (though, as I noted, it was not an all-white jury this time).

The hardest piece of evidence to dodge, so to speak, was Patty Graham (Patty Valentine) and her ID of the car, its taillights, and its plates. Her testimony never wavered, so you have to go back to her first statement and ID, and assume they were coerced or coached.

A conspiracy as badly organised as this one seems unlikely until you consider the spur of the moment nature it might have taken--if you're willing to consider the idea Carter killed on impulse, you must also consider the idea he was framed on a similar impulse. And it's hard to doubt that the malfeasance which freed Carter was real.
 
But the stongest argument in his favour is probably the post-facto: the man he turned himself into. Researching, I discovered that the young Rubin was a stutterer (possibly a response to a domineering father) who overcame it while in the Army. He made himself into a boxer, and he made himself, in prison, into a figure you command respect for his non-violent efforts. After his release, he worked for victims of injustice. He was, I think, ill-served by the bio-pic, and I found the layer of ambiguity which persists something difficult to work around when writing his obit. But buried there is a tragedy and a story with inspiration, it is a morality tale from a violent time.

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