Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, once a 160-pound middleweight championship contender, now weighs half that and lies bed-ridden in Toronto. He is on the ropes, fighting his life’s final bout.
This is the end of the story of the Hurricane. The boxer wrongfully convicted of a 1966 triple murder in New Jersey, whose story has been told in his own 1974 book The Sixteenth Round, in a 1975 song by Bob Dylan, and in the 1999 Norman Jewison film Hurricane, is now dying of prostate cancer.
But the 77-year-old Mr. Carter is dying mostly alone, having drifted away or fallen out with many of the characters in the well-known drama of his life.
One old friend by his side, however, is John Artis. It was Mr. Artis who was also by his side that night in Paterson, N.J., in June, 1966, when as Mr. Dylan sang, “a cop pulled him over to the side of the road/ Just like the time before and the time before that.” Mr. Artis, a promising track athlete then about to turn 20 and hitching a ride home from a nightclub, would be convicted and jailed for the shootings along with Mr. Carter.
Nearly a half-century later, Mr. Artis, now 67, dropped his life in Virginia and came to care for his old friend after he found out Mr. Carter was dying in 2011, with no family by his side. Now, when you phone Mr. Carter’s home, Mr. Artis answers: “Good afternoon, Innocence International, Dr. Carter’s office. How may we help you?”
After a U.S. federal judge declared in 1985 that his convictions were based on “racism rather than reason,” Mr. Carter moved to Toronto and became an international figure fighting for other wrongfully convicted prisoners. He founded his small Innocence International group after he resigned in anger from Toronto’s Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted a decade ago. He quit over what he considered the group’s reluctance to loudly protest the judicial appointment of the prosecutor who wrongfully convicted Guy Paul Morin.
Now, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Artis says that Mr. Carter, once a passionate preacher-like public speaker, tires so easily he cannot give speeches or even speak with reporters.
“It’s hard. I am watching him slowly die day-by-day here,” Mr. Artis said, adding that Mr. Carter is sometimes incoherent because of his painkilling drugs. “He’s only a caricature of the guy he once was.”
A little-known figure living in the shadow of the Hurricane, Mr. Artis was paroled in 1981. But he would plead guilty and serve 11 months for distributing $50 worth of cocaine and receiving a stolen handgun a few years later. (He denies he sold drugs and says he was using cocaine to deal with a medical condition. He says he did not know the gun was stolen.)
While in prison for the 1966 triple murder, Mr. Artis said he saved the lives of some prison guards during a riot and was rewarded with the chance to attend college, unsupervised. He says he has worked with troubled youth since his release.
Some family members and supporters, including Vancouver writer Ken Klonsky who co-wrote Mr. Carter’s 2011 book Eye of the Hurricane, have called or visited. But Mr. Carter seems to prefer to be alone, Mr. Artis says: “He’s busy fighting his disease. Most of the time he really doesn’t want to be disturbed. He’s fighting it in solitude.”
He has long been estranged from his ex-wife and two children in the United States. In the early 1990s, he broke with the Toronto-area commune that helped fight for his freedom, after the deterioration of his brief marriage to commune leader Lisa Peters. She died about a decade ago.
One admirer who does check in from time to time is Denzel Washington, the Hollywood star whose fiery portrayal of Mr. Carter in the 1999 film was widely praised, although some criticized the movie for taking too many liberties with the facts.
Mr. Artis said he had hoped to drive Mr. Carter to New York to see Mr. Washington in the new Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun. But his dying friend has taken a turn for the worse in recent days and is too weak to make the trip. He had been resting at his west-end home, but was taken to hospital with complications this week.
It is no exaggeration to say that Mr. Carter, who had already served time for assaults and robberies before that night in 1966, owes his life to Mr. Artis. Prosecutors tried to get Mr. Artis to falsely incriminate the boxer in exchange for leniency, which Mr. Artis refused to do.
And one of the pair’s former lawyers, on a recent visit, told Mr. Artis that the jury had their minds made up even before deliberating. They only spared Mr. Carter the death penalty because they couldn’t bear sending the 20-year-old Mr. Artis, who had no criminal record, to the electric chair: “They wanted to kill Rubin, but they didn’t want to kill me.”
Mr. Artis acknowledges the uncompromising Mr. Carter has never been one to shy away from disagreements. But Mr. Artis says he and his old friend have never had harsh words. “Well, you walk that kind of road, you know, you walk that road together,” he said.
Others in the Hurricane story who have drifted away include Lesra Martin, the African-American teenager adopted by the Toronto commune – known as “the Canadians” in Hurricane lore – that would end up helping Mr. Carter’s lawyers win his freedom. It was Mr. Martin, now 50 and a personal injury lawyer in Kamloops, who discovered Mr. Carter’s autobiography at a used-book sale in Toronto and began corresponding with him in 1979.
The two lived together in Toronto after Mr. Carter broke with the Canadians and before Mr. Martin went on to law school, with the former boxer becoming a kind of father figure and Mr. Martin helping him adjust to life on the outside. But the pair grew more distant over the years, Mr. Martin said in a recent interview, acknowledging he had not spoken to his former mentor since he fell ill.
“It became important to us both to establish our own identities. And as a result of that, I think it has sort of produced a distance, an artificial distance, that likely otherwise wouldn’t exist,” Mr. Martin said, adding that before a speaking engagement in Toronto in early April he plans to go see Mr. Carter.
Toronto lawyer James Lockyer, well known for his work exonerating the wrongly convicted alongside Mr. Carter in the 1990s with the Association in Defence of the Wrongfully Convicted, says he regrets the ex-boxer’s acrimonious break with the group, which cost him a good friend. The two haven’t spoken in years, and Mr. Lockyer said his attempts to reach out to Mr. Carter have been rebuffed.
“You know, Rubin is a very determined man. And I respect him for that. It’s a shame, and I miss him as a friend,” Mr. Lockyer said in an interview. “I would love to have him back as friend, especially if we are in the last days of his life, which we may be.… But it’s his choice.”
Sam Chaiton, one of the leaders of the Toronto commune that helped free Mr. Carter, said he hasn’t spoken to him in years. Asked if he and Mr. Carter were on good or bad terms, he said: “No terms, really.”
Reached at the offices of Toronto hat retailer Big It Up, a business the commune launched in 1996, Mr. Chaiton called Mr. Carter a “powerful voice for justice.” The fight for his freedom was an intense time, Mr. Chaiton said, and Mr. Carter’s break with the commune had to do with his feeling after his prison years that he needed to stand on his own two feet.
“In a way, we kind of went through fighting a war together against the state, and the wrongful conviction,” Mr. Chaiton said. “It’s difficult after those things, something like that, that’s so intense, such a matter of life and death, it’s difficult to kind of maintain regular human relationships.”
Even though he lies dying, Mr. Carter has not given up fighting for those he believes were wrongly convicted. In February, he wrote a letter to the New York Daily News demanding the release of David McCallum, a Brooklyn man Mr. Carter says was wrongly convicted of murder in 1985 with no evidence and a confession gained by “force and trickery.”
“I am now quite literally on my deathbed and am making my final wish, which those in authority have the power to grant,” the letter reads, adding that Mr. Carter will be surprised if he sees heaven after his death. “To live in a world where truth matters and justice, however late, really happens, that world would be heaven enough for us all.”