Former boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter (Photo: Guardian.com) released after two trials and conviction when a US Federal court set aside the convictions.
Carter was no angel, as a teen he had been arrested for petty crimes, and was later discharged from the military as unsuitable given that he had been up on four charges while serving in West Germany. His first wife divorced him due to his infidelity, a girlfriend accused him of assault. So he wasn’t a perfect citizen by any means (I haven’t met too many perfect citizens).
However, the murder charges for the shooting in 1966 at the Lafeyette Bar in New Jersey were pinned on Cater and his friend Artis. Subsequent trial and later appeals showed that police had not collected crucial evidence (no finger prints, no gunshot residue test), witnesses were inconsistent (until the first trial when they magically became consistent), and witness statements didn’t conclusively point to Carter or Artis, alibi material from Carter and Artis was ignored, the alleged guns used by Carter and Artis were only admitted to the evidence clerk five days after the shooting and arrest. The two main “witnesses” recanted at the beginning of the second trial, but this was dismissed, and Cater was convicted again.
After a campaign by supporters, and including Muhammad Ali and Bob Dylan, in the late 70s the appeal to the US Federal court was succesful and in 1985 Carter was freed.
Rubin Carter was black, what else mattered in getting a conviction? His rights (even if he had been guilty) were trashed by the police and court process. Sadly there are many Rubin Carters across the world: In Western Australia the cases of John Button (1963), Darryl Beamish (1959), and Andrew Mallard (1994) are cases that send a chill down your spine. Button and Beamish were fortunate to escape hanging (Button received a manslaughter charge while Beamish was given life), Mallard served twelve years. All three were exonerated, the appeal process showing that police and prosecution had failed at every turn, and in Mallard’s case had pressured witness statements.
In the UK and Australia until the end of capital punishment there were several posthumous pardons for those wrongly convicted and hanged, in the US it is still going on. It is a sickening thought that one minute you’re minding your own business and the next you’re being wrongfully convicted, and in some countries that would mean also facing the death penalty. Although science has enabled better evidencing of crime, it is still not fool-proof – not even DNA testing, so, although the problem has been minimized it has not yet been eradicated. And this is more than just human error, in many cases of wrongful conviction there has been a miscarriage of justice, willful and determined bias, racial prejudice, typecasting, leading witnesses, evidence tampering, hiding evidence and more, none of which is simple human error. Guilt should not, cannot be pronounced simply because you want somone to be guilty, someone to suffer, to pay. And jumping to conclusions is unhelpful to everyone.
To use the term guilty is a heavy pronouncement and should never be done in haste, for any circumstance. I’ve seen miscarriage of justice while working in schools, churches, community groups, sports teams, government agencies, in families and between friends. The end result is devastating, but more so when it is proved to be wrong. Yet we are all guilty of something, and there’s the clue! Who should rush to cast the first stone? Jesus said that only those without sin/wrong in their life had the right to punish another found guilty, knowing that no such person existed. The point being that we’re all guilty of something, so forgiveness must be a starting point (and which is fundamental to Restorative Justice) and self reflection must be part of the guide in dealing with those who have wronged us. The more we are conscious of our own motivations and actions, our own shortcomings, the less we are likely to be baying for the blood of another.
For good measure – a clip of Bob Dylan playing his “Hurricane” song live, the lyrics are confronting.