Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was a difficult, stubborn person. When he died of cancer last week at age 76 in Toronto, he was essentially alone, cared for only by the man who, along with Mr. Carter, had been falsely convicted of a triple murder in New Jersey in 1967. He was estranged from the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, the non-profit Toronto-based organization he had resigned from over a matter of principle in 2004 after serving as its executive director and public face for more than a decade. During his 19 years in prison, he confined himself to his tiny cell and refused to join in prison life, because he believed doing so would be an admission of guilt.
It was this toughness that made Mr. Carter so important a figure. Convicted during an era in the United States when young black men were easy targets for white detectives and white prosecutors working with all-white juries, he refused to disappear into the prison system. He fought back, gained support from celebrities and the broader public, and endured a heartbreaking setback when a second jury convicted him in 1976. When he and his supporters finally overturned his convictions, and those of his co-accused and final caretaker John Artis, in 1985, it was a repudiation of the idea that the U.S. justice system – any justice system – is a monolithic institution whose decisions should dictate the conscience of the public.
In Canada after his release, Mr. Carter joined an organization that defends wrongly-convicted Canadians who have been forgotten by the public, but not by their families and supporters. The list of names the AIDWYC has gone to bat for is a chilling reminder of the ways justice system can go off the rails in this country: David Milgaard, Guy Paul Morin, Romeo Phillion, Sherry Sherrett-Robinson... The same organization is currently working on an astounding 74 cases across Canada that it believes involve wrongful conviction.
On its website, the AIDWYC calls Rubin Carter “a truly courageous man who fought tirelessly to free others who had suffered the same fate as he.” His message was simple: You have to fight for justice, and never give up until you get it. Mr. Carter’s message will long outlive him.