The Hurricane Hoax
by Lona Manning
Most people who know about the Hurricane Carter case only know the Hollywood version presented in the movie starring Denzel Washington. The Hurricane, released in 1999, features crooked, lying, racist cops and frightened witnesses who won't come forward. Carter himself is brash but noble, persecuted his whole life by one obsessed detective who keeps sending him to jail.
The real Rubin Carter and the real Lafayette Grill murder case are nothing like the movie. This movie bills itself as being about hope and redemption. The movie, in terms of Carter and the actual murders at the Lafayette Grill, is a fraud from beginning to end, full of errors, distortions and fictions, large and small. Some events were invented to add dramatic excitement, but most of the distortions and misrepresentations appear to be attempts to place a halo over Carter's head and paint horns and a tail on the police. If this was director Norman Jewison's attempt to right one of the legions of wrongs of a justice system riddled with racism, he picked the wrong case. Once Jewison had made that mistake in judgment, his need to fabricate the truth took over.
The following incidents from the movie, for example, are not true – and this is just a partial list:
* The biggest and most crucial distortion the movie serves up is that one evil, racist Paterson lieutenant had it in for Carter. The movie depicts this cop doing his best to destroy Carter at every crucial turn in Carter's life, from age 11 on. This distortion allows movie audiences to make the leap of faith that Carter and co-defendant John Artis were framed and therefore innocent. There was a lead detective in the Lafayette Grill case by the name of Vincent DeSimone. He had nothing to do with Carter's earlier convictions.
* The Canadians (a group of nine people who lived and worked together in a commune-type setting; all were involved in Carter's case, but the three principally involved were Sam Chaiton, Terry Swinton, and Lisa Peters) did not find evidence that proves Carter is innocent or that Carter was framed, and neither has anybody else. His release had nothing to do with proving the case was built on "forgeries and lies," as the lawyers for Carter claim in the final courtroom scene.
* Evil detectives did not threaten the Canadians on the street and did not tamper with their car. It bears repeating: the Canadians were not the victims of an attempted murder by New Jersey law enforcement.
* Carter was not 11 when he and a group of his friends encountered a middle-aged white man, depicted as a maniacal pedophile in the movie, at the Great Falls. He was 14 when he was convicted for clubbing the man over the head with a bottle and robbing him of his watch, which was valued at $55. It was Carter's fourth juvenile offence. Carter was an experienced and savage street fighter, the leader of a gang called the Apaches. Anyone would have thought twice before tangling with him.
* Carter did not leave the Army wearing a uniform covered with good conduct and service ribbons. The record shows he was discharged, with the designation "unfit," after four courts-martial for: "disobeying a lawful order (three times), failure to make reveille, disrespectful in language to a non-commissioned officer and treating his superior officer with contempt."
* Carter was returned to prison after he left the Army to finish his juvenile term, but the movie completely omits another four-year stint in prison, for mugging three people. Carter was twice denied parole because of his hostility and aggression. The detective who arrested Carter for the mugging couldn't have been motivated by racism – the detective was black.
* Carter's world championship bout in 1964 with Joey Giardello was not a slam-dunk case of racist "fixing." Giardello sued the producers of the movie for their portrayal of the fight and recently settled out of court.
* When the police stopped Carter and Artis on the night of the shooting, Carter was not sitting up front beside Artis, he was lying down in the back seat. Plus there was another man in the car, sitting opposite Artis in the front seat.
* It's true that the police questioned Al Bello, the petty thief who was a witness at the murder scene, with a tape recorder rolling. In this crucial scene, we watch as the evil detective half bribes, half threatens Bello into framing Carter for the murder. The Hollywood writers ignored what was really said (see later in this article), and substituted a scene of menace and innuendo.
* Prison guards did not try to "toss" Carter's cell and take away his "manuscript" for his autobiography, The 16th Round, in 1973. The opening scene in the movie is a distortion of a 1974 incident when prison guards took Carter to the Vroom Psychiatric Unit as punishment for holding an unauthorized inmates' meeting. Prison officials were also worried about Carter's mental state, as he had recently referred to himself as "God." His manuscript, at that time, was safely in the hands of his publishers.
* There was an Avery Cockersham. His wife Louisa is the character in the movie who invites three of the Canadians, including Lisa Peters, into her house and gives them cookies and explains that the bartender at the Lafayette wasn't a bigot. The real Avery Cockersham didn't "move away and couldn't be found;" he didn't die before the trial. If the Cockershams had useful information for the defense, they didn't step forward and give it.
* The prosecution didn't claim that Rubin Carter killed the Lafayette Grill victims just because the bartender wouldn't serve blacks. The movie is completely misleading on this point. (The "racial revenge" motive is discussed further in this article under the coverage of the trials.)
* The jury for the second trial in 1976, which is scarcely mentioned in the movie, was not all white. It included two blacks.
* The Canadians did not find the diary of a dead investigator.
* In the movie, the Canadians find a telephone time card. They try to interview Jean Wall, the operator, about the time of the murder call, but she says that if she were asked to testify, she would say that she couldn't remember. Then she runs into her house, frightened and angry. The real Jean Wall testified at the first trial that she received a call reporting the murders at around 2:30.
* In the movie, the evil detective has altered the time of the call on the card. But, a big deal is made in the movie about how the evidence could never be used in court. And it never was. If it had, it would have been laughed out the door. There's no mystery about the time of the murders and the forged time card is a product of the Canadians' overheated imaginations.
As New Jersey columnist Paul Mulshine points out, "The movie seems to lie compulsively." For example, when the police pull Carter and Artis over on the fateful night, the writers chose to have Denzel Washington say to Garland Whitt, the actor playing Artis, "John -- you been drinking?" to which Whitt replies, "No."
Artis testified at trial that he'd been drinking heavily that night and that he had thrown up earlier. Why doesn't his character say, "Uh, oh -- got a breath mint?"
Evil detective Della Pesca, the movie's version of Lt. DeSimone, is an ugly, leering guy. The real-life detective was a little sensitive about his looks. He'd taken a bullet in the face during World War II. The movie of course, doesn't mention that the reason the detective wasn't a beauty contest winner was because he was a war hero. (DeSimone, who rose to become chief of detectives in Paterson, died in 1979.)
There are lots of other things the movie doesn't mention, like:
* Carter's troubles with his alibi witnesses, and his alibi;
* the supporter who says Carter beat her into unconsciousness while Carter was out on bail awaiting the second trial;
* the accusation that some of his supporters bribed prosecution witnesses to
change their testimony;
* the fact that Carter no longer speaks to the Canadians who devoted so much time and effort to freeing him.