By Stanley Smith
The hit movie, ‘The Hurricane’, based on the roller-coaster life of boxer, Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, is an uplifting story of the ultimate release of a man who served nearly 20 years in prison after being wrongfully convicted of a triple murder.
But it probably couldn’t happen today? Because – thanks to the courts, congress and President Clinton – a person imprisoned under similar circumstances would more than likely be left there! S/he would not be able to get their case reviewed. Judges and politicians, anxious ton get tough on crime, have sharply reduced access to the appeals process that Carter used.
Carter, a middleweight contender and a black man with a criminal record, was twice convicted of the 1966 murder of three white men in a Patterson, New Jersey bar. The first conviction relied on the testimony of two white men caught robbing a nearby factory. At the urging of prosecutors, who promised to let them go free, the two men changed their original story and implicated Carter. However, when eventually the facts were exposed Carter’s conviction was overturned. The state courts upheld the second conviction but Carter was able to ask a federal judge for Habeas Corpus, an ancient common-law writ by which an independent judge can review whether the prisoner of the state is being held legally. Habeas Corpus came about as a remedy against unjust imprisonment and was enshrined in English law in 1679, protected by the founding father in the US Constitution.
Carter’s lawyers could ask for Habeas Corpus – subsequently a federal judge reversed the second conviction: the overzealous prosecutors had hidden the fact that their key witness had failed a lie-detector test and they had been allowed to claim, without evidence, that the killings were motivated by racial hatred. Carter’s lawyers, legal scholars and the judge, who issued the 1685 reversal, say that such a reversal could not happen today. In 1996 congress passed, and Clinton signed, a law raising a bar against Federal Judges acting in such cases: even if there have been violations of constitutional procedures designed to ensure a fair trial.
As the Nation becomes tougher on crime and particularly violent offences it appears that the crime rate has fallen. However, this is no reason to imprison the innocent and leave them without recourse. Politicians, eager to demonstrate their desire to ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’, have created a barrier to protecting the innocent from the unscrupulous police and prosecutors.
The ‘Hurricane’ must not go down as a quaint tribute to a precious liberty that has been lost forever. Instead it should be a prescription to fix the mistakes of the 1996 law!