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Rubin Carter


At approximately 2:30 a.m. on June 17, 1966, two men entered the Lafayette Grill, a tavern in Paterson, New Jersey, and opened fire with a shotgun and a revolver, killing bartender James Oliver and patron Fred Nauyoks. The gunmen wounded patrons Hazel Tanis and William Marins, and Tanis died four weeks later. All the victims were white and, according to the surviving witnesses, the shooters were Black.

Patricia Graham Valentine, a waitress who lived in a second-floor apartment above the tavern, later testified that she looked out her window after she heard gunshots and a woman’s scream and saw two Black men jump into a white car with out-of-state license plates and butterfly-shaped taillights. Valentine said she went downstairs to the bar, where she found the victims, as well as 22-year-old Alfred P. Bello, who was taking money from the cash register. Bello quickly left the building, and Valentine called the police, describing the two men who had jumped in the car as well-dressed in dark clothing, with one wearing a hat.

Police arrived at the Lafayette Grill minutes after the shooting, while other officers were dispatched to search for the getaway car. Approximately 10 minutes after the shots were fired, Sergeant Theodore Capter of the Paterson Police Department stopped 29-year-old Rubin “Hurricane” Carter’s white Dodge Polara. The car was being driven by 19-year-old John Artis, while Carter, a middleweight boxing star, was lying down in the backseat. John “Bucks” Royster, a regular at the local bars and a known heavy drinker, was in the front passenger seat. The men were permitted to drive away after a few questions. However, upon learning more details of Valentine’s description of the car, including the out-of-state license plates and butterfly-shaped lights, both of which Carter’s car had, police tracked down Carter’s car again a half hour later. Carter and Artis were inside; Royster had already been dropped off at his house.

No weapons were found in the car, and Carter and Artis were unarmed. Police first escorted the car to the Lafayette Grill, where Valentine and Bello reportedly identified it as the getaway car they had seen. Police then drove Carter and Artis to Paterson police headquarters. By 4:00 a.m., police told Carter and Artis that a search of the car had turned up an unused .32 caliber cartridge and an unused 12-gauge shotgun shell in the trunk. Police did not log this evidence for five days, and neither the cartridge nor the shell would turn out to match those used in the shootings. Carter and Artis were questioned for several hours by Lieutenant Vincent DeSimone, and both denied any involvement in or knowledge of the crime. Artis would later say that he was pressured by police to implicate Carter, with promises that he would walk free if he did so. Police brought Carter and Artis to Marins’s hospital room later that morning for an identification, but Marins did not identify either man as a shooter.

The description of the shooters’ facial hair, complexions, clothing, and heights provided by Marins and Tanis did not match Carter or Artis.

Detectives speculated that the Lafayette Grill attack was a racially motivated retaliation for the shooting death of a Black bar owner, Leroy Holloway, by a white man earlier the same night. Holloway’s murder at the Waltz Inn happened six hours before the Lafayette Grill shooting.

Hours after the shooting, Carter and Artis voluntarily submitted to polygraph examinations by an examiner from the police department in the nearby city of Elizabeth. Each was found to be responding truthfully when he said he was not involved in the crime, though Carter’s results suggested that he might have knowledge of who was responsible.

Eddie Rawls, a friend of Carter’s and the stepson of Leroy Holloway, was also brought in for a polygraph examination that day. Rawls and two friends had shown up at the Paterson police station hours after Holloway’s death, demanding to know what police were doing about it. Rawls reportedly threatened that if the police did not take care of solving the murder, Rawls would handle it. But after leaving the police station, Rawls went to work bartending at the Nite Spot on the morning of June 17. The report from Rawls’s polygraph examination stated that he had either committed the Lafayette Grill shooting or “had knowledge of it.” However, the examiner’s report advised that because Rawls was in a “state of fatigue,” the results were not conclusive. Five days later, police asked Rawls to take another polygraph. He refused. Rawls was never arrested and later refused to testify about the night of the shooting, telling prosecutors he would invoke his right against self-incrimination if called to testify. Carter and Artis were released late on June 17.

Prior to his boxing career, Carter had multiple arrests for theft and assault and wound up in a state home for boys at the age of 14. Upon his release, he had joined the Army and then began his boxing career. Artis had no criminal history. Artis had deferred attending college on a track scholarship to care for his ill mother, who died shortly after his high-school graduation in 1964. He had remained in Paterson, working as a truck driver and playing semi-professional football with the Paterson Panthers, with plans to attend college in the near future.

Nearly four months after the Lafayette Grill shooting, on October 15, 1966, Carter and Artis were arrested for the triple murder. Bello and his criminal partner, Arthur Dexter Bradley, had made statements implicating Artis and Carter. Bello and Bradley, who were now each subject to other criminal charges, had identified Carter as the man carrying the shotgun. Bello had identified Artis as the man with the pistol. Bello and Bradley claimed they had not identified the men sooner for fear of retaliation and disclosure of their own criminal activities. Bello and Bradley admitted they had been in the vicinity of the Lafayette Grill the morning of the shooting because they were burglarizing a building down the block.

Carter and Artis were indicted on three charges of first-degree murder on November 30, 1966. Their joint trial began in early April 1967 before Judge Samuel A. Larner in the Passaic County Superior Court. The case was prosecuted by Passaic County Assistant Prosecutor Vincent E. Hull, Jr., who sought the death penalty for both defendants. Defense attorney Raymond A. Brown represented Carter, and Arnold M. Stein represented Artis. The jury included one Black juror, who was selected as the alternate and did not participate in deliberations or the verdict.

There was no physical evidence linking the men to the crime. None of the light-colored clothing worn by Carter and Artis on the night of the crime, nor their car, showed any evidence of blood. Victim Walter Marins testified for the prosecution and did not identify Carter or Artis. He described the shooting as happening so quickly that he was not able to provide many details.

For the identifications of Carter and Artis, prosecutors relied on Bello and Bradley. Both Bello and Bradley had long criminal records, and both men testified that they had been in the area of the Lafayette Grill that night for the purpose of committing a burglary.

Bello testified that he had been acting as a lookout while Bradley entered the building they were burglarizing. He then went down the block to pick up cigarettes. Bello said that as he approached the Lafayette Grill, he saw two Black men walking toward him – one with a shotgun and one with a pistol – and Bello dodged into an alleyway. A white 1966 Dodge passed by with New York license plates. Bello went into the bar and, seeing the dead and injured victims, he went to the cash register for a coin to call police. He grabbed a handful of cash from the register and left, encountering Bradley, who had also headed down the block after hearing the shots. Bello called the police and flagged them down when they arrived. Bello identified Carter and Artis as the men he saw that night. In Bradley’s testimony, he identified Carter but not Artis.

Carter and Artis each testified, denying involvement in the crime. Both testified that they had been at the Nite Spot on the night of the shooting. Carter testified that he had given two women a ride home then returned to the Nite Spot around 2:30. But he and Artis quickly left – with Royster – to run by Carter’s house to get more drinking money. That’s when they were stopped by the police. Royster testified and corroborated this story. While Carter and Artis supplied alibi witnesses who placed them at the Nite Spot, the fact that they left very close to the time of the shooting made it difficult to prove they were still at the bar when the shooting took place.

The two women whom Carter testified he had driven home, Anna Mapes and her daughter, Catherine McGuire, both testified to corroborate Carter’s story. However, on cross-examination, the prosecutor called into question whether it might have been the previous night that Carter had driven the women home.

The jury found both Carter and Artis guilty on May 26, 1967. Carter was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison, and Artis was sentenced to 15 years to life. Both men appealed their convictions, which were affirmed by the New Jersey Supreme Court on June 15, 1969.

In prison, Carter focused on his appeal and spent most of his time reading law books in his cell. He was credited by some with helping to calm down rioting prisoners at Rahway State Prison during an uprising in November 1971. He spent much time focused on writing his autobiography, “The Sixteenth Round,” which would be published in 1974. He accepted visits from his wife and daughter, but otherwise was reluctant to have visitors. Artis was described as a model prisoner, who earned his college degree while in prison.

Carter became acquainted with Fred W. Hogan, a senior investigator for the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender’s Monmouth County bureau, who often visited the Rahway prison for his work. Convinced of Carter’s innocence, Hogan set out to locate Bello and Bradley and talk to them about their testimony. After speaking with Hogan, Bradley recanted his testimony in writing in May 1974, and Bello recanted in September 1974. In addition to Hogan, Bello and Bradley separately provided written recantations to a reporter with the New York Times and to a reporter at a local television station.

Based on these recantations, as well as claims that the prosecution had suppressed promises of advantageous plea deals and permitted Bello and Bradley to testify falsely that they had not been offered such deals, Carter and Artis filed motions for new trials.

Judge Larner presided over the hearings for new trials in October and November 1974, where Artis and Carter were represented by attorney John Noonan. Bello testified that while he had seen two Black men leave the tavern, he had not seen their faces and had lied when he identified Carter and Artis. Bradley testified that he had remained in the alleyway, involved in the burglary, and had not seen Bello until he emerged from the bar with the money from the cash register. He testified that he had not heard the shots, or seen anyone fleeing, and that he had lied in his earlier testimony. Both men claimed they had been pressured by police and the Passaic County Prosecutor’s office to identify Carter and Artis, with Bello making specific reference to Lieutenant DeSimone. Bello testified that he had also hoped to receive the $10,500 reward that had been offered for the conviction of the gunmen. He also testified that he had not recanted his testimony sooner out of fear of retaliation from Passaic County prosecutors. After the hearings, Judge Larner denied Carter’s and Artis’s requests for a new trial on December 11, 1974, stating that he found the recantations unbelievable and “patently untrue.”

A group of celebrities undertook Carter’s cause, organizing major fundraising concerts for Carter’s benefit. In 1975, Bob Dylan released “Hurricane,” a protest song about the perceived injustice of Carter’s prosecution. In a show of support for Carter, Dylan, along with Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Allen Ginsberg, and Roberta Flack, performed at Clinton State Prison, where Carter was then incarcerated, on December 7, 1975.

In January 1976, Bello signed a new sworn statement recanting his recantation. Bello claimed he had been offered bribes by the investigator and the two reporters in 1974 to recant his original trial testimony. The three men denied offering bribes. Bradley stood by his recantation.

The New Jersey Supreme Court reversed Carter’s and Artis’s convictions on March 17, 1976 and remanded the cases. In its opinion, the court deferred to the trial’s court’s finding that Bello’s and Bradley’s recantations were not believable. However, it found reversible error with regard to other claims of evidence suppression of an earlier and inconsistent taped interview with Bello and of the prosecution’s allowance of false trial testimony by Bello and Bradley denying offers of favorable treatment by the prosecutor. After this ruling, boxer Muhammad Ali paid $35,000 in combined bail for Carter and Artis, and the two men were freed.

The joint retrial of Carter and Artis began in October 1976 before Judge Bruno L. Leopizzi. Attorney Myron Beldock represented Carter, and attorney Lewis M. Steel represented Artis. Passaic County Prosecutor Burrell I. Humphreys personally prosecuted the case. The trial would include 77 witnesses over 30 days. In addition, the jury now included two Black jurors. Bello was the only witness who placed Carter and Artis at the crime scene, again testifying to his original story. Bradley did not testify. The prosecution introduced testimony from people who claimed they had been approached to provide false alibis on behalf of Carter. Anna Mapes and Catherine McGuire recanted their previous alibi testimony, instead testifying that they were not with Carter around the time of the crime.

Artis testified, but Carter did not. The defense focused on efforts by Lieutenant DeSimone to frame Carter and Artis, presenting evidence to support the theory that the shell and cartridge recovered from Carter’s trunk the morning of the shooting might have been planted by police.

The jury convicted Carter and Artis on three counts of first-degree murder on December 21, 1976. Judge Leopizzi refused to allow Carter to remain free for the birth of his second child, who was due shortly.

Artis was released from prison on parole on December 22, 1981.

After Carter’s and Artis’s convictions were upheld by the New Jersey Supreme Court on August 17, 1982, the case was heard in federal court for the first time in 1985. Judge H. Lee Sarokin of the U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey granted a writ of habeas corpus and overturned the 1976 convictions of Carter and Artis on November 8, 1985. Judge Sarokin ruled that the prosecution’s baseless racial revenge theory was unconstitutional and found that a recorded polygraph test that would have impeached Bello’s crucial trial testimony had been withheld by the prosecution. Sarokin stated that the convictions were based on “an appeal to racism rather than reason, concealment rather than disclosure.” Carter was released from prison following the ruling. The prosecution filed several unsuccessful motions to have him returned to prison on the basis that he was violent and dangerous.

In April 1986, police arrested Artis on drug and handgun possession charges. He pled guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison. Released from prison in 1988, he moved to Virginia, committed to rebuilding his life. He soon found his calling as a youth counselor, a field of work he would continue in for many years.

On January 11, 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the 1985 district court decision to overturn the convictions of Carter and Artis. Judge Ralph V. Martin of Passaic County Superior Court then signed an order dismissing the murder charges against both men on February 26, 1988.

After his release, Carter moved to Canada, where he worked on behalf of the wrongfully convicted. In 2004, he founded Innocence International, a Canadian nonprofit organization that sought to free wrongfully imprisoned individuals. The Institute for Global Leadership at Tufts University later took over aspects of the organization’s work.

Throughout their years in prison and after their release, Artis and Carter remained close friends. When Carter was diagnosed with prostate cancer, Artis moved to Canada to care for him. Artis was by Carter’s side when Carter died in April 2014. Artis continues to share their story, with a documentary film called “My Name is John Artis” released in February 2020.

- Meghan Barrett Cousino
State:NJ
County:Passaic
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Reported Crime Date:1966
Convicted:1967
Exonerated:1988
Sentence:30 years to life
Race/Ethnicity:Black
Sex:Male
Age at the date of crime:29
Contributing Factors:Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct