Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer whose wrongful imprisonment inspired Bob Dylan’s stirring 1975 song “Hurricane,” died on Sunday morning at the age of 76. He had been suffering from prostate cancer and died in his sleep at his Toronto home, the New York Times reports.
Carter was a promising middleweight contender in June 1966 when two men and a woman were shot at the Lafayette Grill in Carter’s hometown of Paterson, New Jersey. The victims were white, the shooters were identified as two black men, and Carter and his friend John Artis were pulled over by police that night. Carter already had a criminal record for a series of muggings and had been a regular subject of police attention. Although a surviving victim could not identify the two men as the killers and a grand jury investigating the case declined to indict them, the testimony of two career criminals who admitted being in the vicinity that night brought Carter and Artis life sentences handed down by an all-white jury.
While in prison, Carter wrote his autobiography, The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472, which was published in 1974. The following year, he sent the book to Bob Dylan, who soon came to visit Carter in prison. Inspired by Carter’s story, Dylan and producer Jacques Levy wrote the eight-minute narrative epic “Hurricane,” which ended up on the album Desire.
Dylan featured the song heavily in his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which made a stop at the New Jersey prison where Carter was held to show their support. The Revue, which also featured Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg and Roberta Flack, went on to play massive benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden and the Houston Astrodome to raise funds for Carter’s legal defense.
In the meantime, the two witnesses recanted their testimony, saying they’d been pressured to falsely identify Carter and Artis in exchange for leniency in their own cases. The New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the guilty convictions in 1976 and ordered a new trial. But at the second trial in December 1976, one of the witnesses recanted his recantation and the two men were found guilty once again.
After nine years of submitting appeals, Carter’s case was finally heard for the first time in a federal court in 1985. The judge ruled that prosecutors had “fatally infected the trial” by promoting a theory of racial revenge without evidence, and withheld evidence that disproved the witness’s identifications. “The extensive record clearly demonstrates that the petitioners’ convictions were predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure,” the judge said. The convictions were overturned on constitutional grounds and Carter was set free. (Artis had been released on parole four years earlier.) The charges were formally dismissed in 1988.
After his release, Carter moved to Toronto and became active around issues of inequality in the criminal justice system. He founded Innocence International in 2004 and published a second autobiography, Eye of the Hurricane: My Path From Darkness to Freedom in 2011 with a foreword by Nelson Mandela. In 1999, he was portrayed by Denzel Washington in Norman Jewison’s film The Hurricane.
Carter remained active in criminal justice causes until the end of his life. In February, he wrote a column for the New York Daily News campaigning for the exoneration of a Brooklyn man who has spent nearly three decades in prison on murder charges. “If I find a heaven after this life, I’ll be quite surprised,” he wrote. “In my own years on this planet, though, I lived in hell for the first 49 years, and have been in heaven for the past 28 years. To live in a world where truth matters and justice, however late, really happens, that world would be heaven enough for us all.”