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At the height of his career, boxer Rubin Carter was twice wrongly convicted of a triple murder and was imprisoned for nearly two decades.
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Carter and John Artis had been arrested on the night of the crime because they fit an eyewitness description of the killers ("two Negroes in a white car"), but they had been cleared by a grand jury when the one surviving victim failed to identify them as the gunmen.
Now, the state had produced two eyewitnesses, Alfred Bello and Arthur D. Bradley, who had made positive identifications. During the trial that followed,
the prosecution produced little to no evidence linking Carter and Artis to the crime, a shaky motive (racially-motivated retaliation for the murder of a black tavern owner by a white man in Paterson hours before), and the only two eyewitnesses were petty criminals involved in a burglary (who were later revealed to have received money and reduced sentences in exchange for their testimony). Nevertheless, on June 29, 1967, Carter and Artis were convicted of triple murder and sentenced to three life prison terms.
While incarcerated at Trenton State and Rahway State prisons, Carter continued to maintain his innocence by defying the authority of the prison guards, refusing to wear an inmate's uniform, and becoming a recluse in his cell. He read and studied extensively, and in 1974 published his autobiography, The 16th Round: From Number 1 Contender to Number 45472, to widespread acclaim.
The story of his plight attracted the attention and support of many luminaries, including Bob Dylan, who visited Carter in prison, wrote the song "Hurricane" (included on his 1976 album, Desire), and played it at every stop of his Rolling Thunder Revue tour. Prizefighter Muhammad Ali also joined the fight to free Carter, along with leading figures in liberal politics, civil rights and entertainment.
In late 1974, Bello and Bradley both separately recanted their testimony, revealing that they had lied in order to receive sympathetic treatment from the police. Two years later, after an incriminating tape of a police interview with Bello and Bradley surfaced and The New York Times ran an exposé about the case, the New Jersey State Supreme Court ruled 7-0 to overturn Carter's and Artis's convictions. The two men were released on bail, but remained free for only six months -- they were convicted once more at a second trial in the fall of 1976, during which Bello again reversed his testimony.
Artis (who had refused a 1974 offer by police to release him if he fingered Carter as the gunman) was a model prisoner who was released on parole in 1981. Although lawyers for Carter continued the struggle, the New Jersey State Supreme Court rejected their appeal for a third trial in the fall of 1982, affirming the convictions by a 4-3 decision.
Inside the prison walls, Carter had long since recognized his need to resign himself to the reality of his situation. He spent his time reading and studying, and had little contact with others. During his first 10 years in prison, his wife, Mae Thelma, stopped coming to see him at his own insistence; the couple, who had a son and a daughter, divorced in 1984.
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