Middleweight boxing champion Rubin “Hurricane” Carter died on Sunday at age 76. He was twice wrongly convicted in a 1966 triple murder. Celebrities rallied for his release, but after his second conviction, many fell away.
Thom Kidrin was among the few who kept up support and lobbied relentlessly for Carter’s release. In 1985, a federal judge ruled Carter had been wrongly convicted.
Kidrin joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss his friend’s life and legacy.
Interview Highlights: Thom Kidrin
On what drew him to Rubin after so many turned away
“I think Rubin had many strong characteristics. Certainly his power of presence; he did have a strong aura about him. Physically strong, but more importantly I think the energy that he put out — tremendous smile, tremendous intellect, a great quick whit, but Rubin also had a human compassion, a component that could tie into your heart. And I think the combination of the injustice that was done to him — his ability to suffer through that, and certainly when all people turn their back on him, which was striking because everybody believed the system was corrupt and unjust and how could the same system retry him and not find the same verdict. But that was sufficient enough for people to say, well, he must be guilty because he had his second trial.”
On bringing Rubin books on philosophy when he was in jail
“Rubin used to joke to me and say, ‘I’m your big experiment, aren’t I,’ and I said ‘look, the fact of the matter is that no matter how many books on law you read, you are not going to free yourself. The system has to work its way through. But you have to be free within your mind and expand your mind through more esoteric type of reading.’ … And we had many, many hours of conversations about that, and I could see in his demeanor he became less strident in his speaking style. Very philosophical. He started to melt the angry person that felt that he was truly unjustly charged and had a sole purpose of vindicating himself from the legal system, realized that he had to get above that.”
On Rubin’s last days and months with cancer
“He was lucid. He was not giving up the fight. He said, ‘look, I know death is coming for me, but I’m ready to go. I’ve done what I could do, I’ve met who I’ve wanted to meet, I’ve said what I had to say and I’ve had a great life and it’s been heaven for the last 28 years.’ … I think he strongly felt that he made some mark and that if anything, he would hope that his legacy would be that people would remember him for speaking out for those that were wrongly convicted.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW.
Yesterday, actor Denzel Washington released this statement: God bless Rubin Carter and his tireless fight to ensure justice for all. In the 1999 film "Hurricane," Washington portrays a middle-weight boxer who lost his bout with cancer Sunday at the age of 76 and decades ago was wrong convicted in a New Jersey court, not just once but twice, of murdering three people.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE HURRICANE")
YOUNG: We're also being reminded today of Bob Dylan's 1975 song "Hurricane," which told the story of Carter's first conviction and a jail sentence even though witnesses to the triple murders said it wasn't him and he and John Artis, a friend who was with him that night, passed lie detector tests.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURRICANE")
YOUNG: The song became a hit, Rubin Carter a celebrity. The case against him overturned when witnesses recanted. Carter and Artis were briefly freed and then tried and convicted again by the same prosecutors who now said they committed racial revenge, killing three whites in retribution for the death of another black man. Back to jail they went and away went most of their new friends, except for reporter Selwyn Raab of The New York Times, fellow fighter Muhammad Ali and musician Thom Kidrin, who wrote a song for Hurricane Carter two years before Bob Dylan did.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
YOUNG: Thom Kidrin lobbied relentlessly for Rubin Carter, who admitted that as a kid he'd filled with rage, that he served time once for assaulting a man. But in 1985, a federal judge ruled he'd been wrongly convicted in the 1966 murders, citing prosecutorial misconduct. Thom Kidrin is now CEO of the Internet 3-D company Worlds Online. He joins us in the studio. And condolences, because this was a personal loss for you.
: Thank you very much.
YOUNG: What drew you to him when so many had turned away?
: I think Rubin had many strong characteristics, certainly his power of presence. He did have a very strong aura about him, physically strong, but more importantly I think the energy that he put out, tremendous smile and tremendous intellect, a great, quick wit. But Rubin also had a human compassion, a component that could tie into your heart, and I think the combination of the injustice that was done to him, his ability to suffer through that, and certainly when all people turned their back on him, which was striking because everybody believed the system was corrupt and unjust, and how could the same system retry him and not but find the same verdict? But that was sufficient enough for people to say, well, he must be guilty because he had his second trial.
YOUNG: And, well, as it turned out, and as a New York Times investigation continued to show, the system was that bad, that it was that bad twice.
: Correct. Much of the system was based upon promotion for achieving this tremendous conviction against - at that point - the biggest murder in New Jersey history. So that system was, throughout, corrupt.
YOUNG: Well - and you - I know you're going to balk at this because you - you're here to talk about Rubin Carter, and I can see in your face that that's what you want to do. But it has been pointed out - Howard Manly wrote a column in Boston Sunday Globe in the year 2000 when the film came out, pointing out that when just about everyone went away, you did not. You know, in the film you'll see him in his cell reading all sorts of books on philosophy. Where did he get those books?
: Well, I brought them to him. Rubin would joke to me and say, I'm your big experiment, aren't I? And I said, look, the fact of the matter is that no matter how many books on law you read, you are not going to free yourself. The system has to work its way through. But you have to be free within your mind and expand your mind through more esoteric-type of reading. And we had long debates about that. And ultimately he started to read Viktor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning," surviving concentration camps, Viktor Uspensky.
And we had these long - many, many hours of conversations about that, I and I could see in his demeanor, he became less strident in his speaking style, very philosophical. He started to melt. The angry person that felt that he was truly unjustly charged and had a sole purpose of vindicating himself through the legal system realized that he had to get above that.
YOUNG: Well - and what's he been doing in the decades since? He's fallen off the radar for a lot of people. We know he co-founded a group in Canada that was sort of the Canadian version of the Innocence Project. Had he been successful?
: Well, he had worked very long and hard and felt that the gift that he had been given through his celebrity and his own cause had provided him with the platform to speak out against others that were unjustly charged and wrongly convicted. He worked with another group to free inmates that were unjustly charged and wrongly convicted and eventually left them and formed Innocence International. And Innocence International now will be a program at Tufts University with the Rubin "Hurricane" Carter/John Artis Innocence International program at Tufts University, which is where his papers will be archived. And it'll be a pro-active program for students to work with those that are wrongly convicted.
YOUNG: John Artis, again, the man who was in the car with him that night, who was arrested with but also eventually cleared, wrongly convicted.
: And was with him the night he died.
YOUNG: Well, tell us about that. USA Today was reporting that the woman who co-founded the Innocence International Project with him, or at least was involved in recent years, Win Wahrer, visited Rubin Carter in his last days. He was incommunicative. He couldn't speak with her, but she says she told him that she'd just returned from an Innocence Project meeting in Oregon. The Innocence Project is the U.S. version of the same idea. About 113 exonerees were there, at this meeting in Oregon, and they all signed posters, thanking him for his work.
So within that community - and it's a very large community now of people who've been exonerated - he was certainly well-known.
: He was recognized worldwide. He was asked to speak at many lectures around the world on this behalf. He was pointed in not wanting to use his history of event as an example but more to focus on those cases that he felt merited his ability to bring the spotlight to them.
YOUNG: You've been in touch with him. In fact, you had a voice message on your phone, and we asked you to play it back. Let's just listen to a little.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)
YOUNG: Awfully upbeat for someone who's staring at a fatal illness and had this history of losing such a portion of his life already. What was your sense of Rubin Carter in the last days, last months?
: He was lucid. He was not giving up the fight. He said, look, I know death is coming for me, but I'm ready to go. I've done what I could do. I've met who I wanted to meet. I've said what I have to say. And I've had a great life, and it's been heaven for the last 28 years.
YOUNG: Did he feel he made a difference?
: I think he strongly felt that he made some mark and that if anything, he would hope that his legacy would be that people would remember for speaking out for those that were wrongly convicted.
YOUNG: Thom Kidrin on the death of his friend, Rubin Carter, Hurricane Rubin Carter. Thanks so much.
: Thank you, Robin.
YOUNG: And Hurricane Carter died yesterday of cancer in Canada.
HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.