Among his vast back-catalogue the Bob Dylan album Desire is not the most noticeable of releases, but its first song, 'Hurricane', is an epic tale of so-called justice in the 'land of the free'.
Here comes the story of the Hurricane,
The man the authorities came to blame
For somethin' that he never done.
- from 'Hurricane' by Bob Dylan and Jacques Levy
There was an armed robbery in a Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson, New Jersey in 1966. Three people were fatally shot, and although a known criminal was found on the scene rifling through the till, the police looked for another candidate for the shootings. The police questioned black boxer Rubin 'The Hurricane' Carter and his friend John Artis.
When a cop pulled him over to the side of the road
Just like the time before and the time before that.
In Paterson that's just the way things go.
If you're black you might as well not show up on the street
'less you want to draw the heat.
Carter had amassed a solid boxing record of 27 wins (with 18 knock-outs and a TKO) and one draw from 39 fights. In 1963 he defeated Emile Griffith1 in one round, but lost the next year to Joey Giardello for the world title.
The survivors of the incident said categorically that Carter and Artis did not commit the crime and lie detector tests backed that up. They voluntarily testified to a grand jury who found they had no crime to answer for and the matter was dropped.
The wounded man looks up through his one dyin' eye
Says, 'What you bring him in here for? He ain't the guy!'
Then Alfred P Bello, the thief found on the scene, signed a statement saying he saw Carter commit the crimes and the boxer was promptly arrested. Based on that alone, an all-white jury found Carter and John Artis guilty of the crime. Seven years later Carter was illegally moved out of prison to a mental hospital; in the next few months a judge moved him back to prison while Bello admitted that he had taken $10,000 to make his statement.
The following year, after receiving a copy of Carter's book, Bob Dylan visited the boxer in jail. Over the next 10 years, various courts pondered Carter's fate, finally releasing him after 19 years in jail on November 8, 1985. It was found that the prosecution had failed to disclose that their star witness failed a polygraph test and a federal judge ruled that the prosecution's theory that Carter was motivated by racism against whites pandered to prejudice.
Cops said, 'A poor boy like you could use a break'
We got you for the motel job and we're talkin' to your friend Bello
Now you don't want to have to go back to jail, be a nice fellow.
You'll be doin' society a favour.
That son of a bitch is brave and gettin' braver.
We want to put his ass in stir
We want to pin this triple murder on him
He ain't no Gentleman Jim.'
Prosecutors still campaigned that he was a danger to society and should be kept in prison. It took another three years for the case to be finally dropped.
Dylan chronicled the first 10 years of the struggle for freedom of an individual whose potential was cruelly hidden from view just because he was black. Like most of the songs on his Desire album it was co-written with Jacques Levy and in some cases changes details of some facts to fit in with the drama. Ruben Carter didn't fight in South America, but in Johannesburg, South Africa. The song also featured the haunting violin sound of Scarlett Rivera, rumoured to have been a former mistress of Dylan.
As of yet, nobody has been convicted of the shootings. What is known, though, is that the judicial system robbed one man of 19 years of his life. The summing up should be left to Dylan himself:
Couldn't help but make me feel ashamed
To live in a land where justice is a game.
Currently Rubin Carter is living in Toronto and an executive director of the Association in Defense of the Wrongly Convicted. In 1996 he was arrested as a suspected drug dealer in a case of mistaken identity, though on this occasion he was released within half an hour.