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Fact and Fiction About The Hurricane

By Elaine Cassel

The Hurricane stars Denzel Washington as boxing champion Hurricane Carter, twice wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life in prison for three murders he did not commit. The movie does not tell the whole story about how the not-so-just criminal justice system twice sent two men to prison for life for crimes they did not commit.

In 1966, when racial tensions were high in many American cities, two black men entered the Lafayette Grill, a bar in Patterson, New Jersey, and killed the white bartender and two customers in what police initially thought were racially motivated revenge killings occasioned by the slaying of a black tavern owner by a white man a few hours earlier. Shortly after the shootings, police stopped a car driven by middleweight boxer Hurricane Carter, then 29, because it resembled what police said witnesses had described as the "getaway" car. Police detained and questioned Carter and his 21-year-old friend, John Artis, and released them after they passed lie detector tests.

Three months later, however, a grand jury indicted Carter and Artis for the triple-murder on the testimony of two white men, Arthur Bradley and Alfred Bello, who said they saw Carter and Artis leaving the Lafayette Grill with guns in their hands. Bradley and Bello were in the neighborhood because they were just leaving a nearby bar after committing a burglary. In 1967, with no evidence of a motive (the police had found no support for their racial revenge theory), the all-white jury convicted Carter and Artis solely on the testimony of the two thieves and sentenced them to life in prison.

In 1976, having lost all appeals, Carter and Artis convinced a New Jersey public defender to take up their cause. The two thieves recanted their testimony, admitting that in exchange for relenting to police pressure to identify Artis and Carter, they received light sentences for their crimes and collected a $10,000 reward. The convictions were overturned.

The relentless prosecutors tried the men again. Artis rejected an offer by the prosecution for a lighter sentence if he would falsely incriminate Carter. But the thieves recanted their recantations and prosecutors resurrected the revenge motive theory (without any evidence to support it) that had never made it into the first trial. In 1976, free for only nine months, Artis and Carter were again convicted and sentenced to life in prison. They languished there for another 12 years, until the U. S. Supreme Court reversed their convictions, citing prosecutor misconduct in withholding evidence that could have exonerated the men. After serving 21 years for a crime they did not commit, they were free men.

The movie misrepresents Carter as a neophyte of the criminal justice system, when in fact he had served time as an adult, while virtually ignoring Artis, who had never been on the wrong side of the law. The movie does not give the public defenders credit for staying with the case for twelve years, and incorrectly implies that a lone racist police detective framed Carter and Artis. Many police, prosecutors, and judges unflinchingly twice conspired to convince jurors to send away two innocent young men for life. These lapses do not detract from movie’s powerful depiction of power gone awry, nor from Denzel Washington’s performance that has Oscar potential.

The Hurricane was directed by Norman Jewison and released by Universal Pictures. To learn more about the case, read the just-released Hurricane by James S. Hirsch, published by Houghton Mifflin.

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