Carter, 76, died last week of prostate cancer, still a folk hero to thousands who believed he overcame runaway racism in America’s courts. That is the legend. Carter’s biography is another story.
His case began when the country was seething with racial divides. Carter was black. The two men and the woman he was accused of murdering in 1966 were white.
Many celebrities and ordinary people assumed that Carter was a victim of racial injustice, and so they lined up to support him. His backers dwindled as they learned more about him, only to be replaced by new ones who blindly accepted what was said about him in popular culture.
Juries twice convicted Carter and a co-defendant, John Artis, of the three murders, committed in a tavern in Paterson, N.J. Judges threw out Carter’s convictions both times because they said he did not receive fair trials. Carter won what proved to be a decisive victory when a federal judge freed him in 1985.
The judge found that prosecutors were guilty of misconduct, and that they had poisoned Carter’s retrial by saying racial revenge had motivated him to kill. With witnesses dead and memories blurred, prosecutors decided not to try Carter a third time.
He re-emerged as a national celebrity in 1999, after Norman Jewison made a deceitful movie about his case called The Hurricane.
Not to be outdone by Hollywood’s excesses, Carter regularly twisted the facts about his arrest and trials. I watched him do this one day while he was basking in glory because of The Hurricane.
Denzel Washington, who portrayed Carter in the movie, had been nominated for an Academy Award as best actor. The movie depicted Carter as a boxer who was robbed of a world championship by racist judges at ringside and later sent to prison by complicit judges in racist courtrooms.
The first lie I heard from Carter was so brazen that I wondered if I had misunderstood him. Speaking at a meeting of the NAACP, Carter said he was tried before all-white juries. But wait. Didn’t two black people serve as jurors in his second trial?
“They were elderly,” Carter said. Then he rushed to answer a softer question.
That was vintage Carter. Caught in a lie about the racial makeup of a jury, he steamrolled ahead with his jaundiced account of a good guy facing evil authoritarians.
In that same speech, Carter told more lies. He said he had passed a polygraph test soon after the murders, but white prosecutors took him to trial anyway.
But police records say that Carter failed the polygraph test. “… It is the opinion of the examiner that [Carter] was attempting deception to all the pertinent questions and [he] was involved in this crime,” states the police report.
Lie-detector tests are imperfect. Guilty people have passed them and innocent people have failed them. But at least some of Carter’s deceptions are obvious because he lied about the polygraph results.
A man named Cal Deal, who built an impressive website about Carter’s case, culled the polygraph records. Deal, a former reporter, believed Carter to be innocent until he started interviewing him in 1975. He said Carter told lie after lie, and Deal became convinced that Carter was guilty as charged.
Two witnesses identified Carter’s vehicle as the getaway car used in the murders. Ten minutes after the slaughter in the tavern, police pulled over Carter’s car. Artis was driving, Carter was lying down in the back seat and a third man was sitting in the front passenger seat.
Police initially let them go because witness accounts from the shootings said that two men committed the murders, then jumped into the getaway car. A car carrying three men seemed, at first glance, not to match up. But anyone who listened to Carter never heard that he was lying in the shadowy back seat of a car that matched the one driven by the killers.
The movie inaccurately described the witnesses’ accounts. Worse, it presented Carter as a fine citizen who was hounded by police because of racial bias.
Omitted from the script was that Carter was separated from the Army for “unfitness” in 1956 after four courts-martial. He went to prison the following year for snatching a woman’s purse and for assaulting two men in different cases. All this occurred before he was 21.
A natural fighter, Carter seemed to turn his life around as a professional boxer. Rippling with muscles, he fought world middleweight champion Joey Giardello in 1964. In the mythology of The Hurricane, Carter gave Giardello a beating, only to be robbed by the judges’ because of racial prejudice.
Offended by the movie’s insinuation that he won the fight because he was white, Giardello sued the filmmakers. They reached an out-of-court settlement but kept the terms secret. What is known is that director Jewison amended his shoddy version of history by adding a mention to the movie DVD attesting to Giardello’s talent in the ring. Even Carter once agreed that Giardello had won their 15-round fight.
Carter benefited mightily from his celebrity status and by the way he was depicted in popular culture. His defenders were emboldened by The Hurricane and by Bob Dylan’s ballad claiming that Carter was railroaded. They will always insist that he was an innocent man, and that he could have been a world champion.
The truth is harsher. Carter had lost seven of his last 15 fights before the murders. He no longer was a contender.
But did he kill three people? We don’t know.
No one can dispute that racial prejudice has tainted many prosecutions. In Carter’s case, though, he convinced thousands that he was a model citizen who was persecuted for no reason except the color of his skin.