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Habeas Corpus

Rubin "hurricane" Carter

Federal courts grant writs of habeas corpus only when grave constitutional violations have occurred. The granting of Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's habeas petition in 1985 freed him from almost 20 years of imprisonment for a crime he maintains he did not commit.

Carter was a top-ranked middleweight boxer when he and John Artis were arrested in 1966 and charged with murdering three people in Paterson, New Jersey. Carter and Artis were African American; the victims were white. Carter and Artis claimed they were the victims of racism and a police frame-up, but they were convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Carter fought his conviction in state court, but the verdict was upheld. In 1974 he published The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472. The book became a national best-seller and drew attention to his case. In 1975 Bob Dylan wrote and recorded the song "Hurricane," which recounted Carter's arrest and trial and characterized Carter as an innocent man. This publicity, along with an investigation by the New Jersey public defenders' office, led to a motion for a new trial. The motion was granted, but Carter and Artis were convicted again in 1976. Carter remained imprisoned; Artis was paroled in 1981.

After all state appeals were exhausted, the only remaining avenue for relief was to file for a writ of habeas corpus in federal court. In November 1985 Judge H. Lee Sarokin ruled that the second murder trial convictions were unconstitutional because the prosecution had been allowed to imply that guilt could be inferred by the defendants' race and because the prosecution withheld POLYGRAPH evidence that could have been used to impeach the credibility of their "star witness" (Carter v. Rafferty, 621 F. Supp. 533 [D.N.J. 1985]). Judge Sarokin therefore granted habeas corpus, overturned the convictions, and ordered "Immediate release from custody with prejudice."

The State of New Jersey appealed to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, asking to reverse Sarokin's ruling and requesting that Carter remain incarcerated until a final ruling. The Third Circuit rejected both appeals. New Jersey appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which also refused to overturn. The state chose not to attempt a third prosecution of Carter and Artis. Carter moved to Canada where he headed the Association for the Defense of the Wrongly Convicted.

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