April 6, 2019


Here Comes the Story of the Hurricane (Lona Manning, 4/06/19, Quillette)

Sports reporters Joel Hammer and Steve Crossman spent 18 months researching and reinvestigating the case and promised listeners of the BBC's podcast that they would provide the "full" and "true" story. Their in-depth look at the crime provides far more detail about the murders than can be gleaned from Bob Dylan's 1975 protest song or the hagiographic 1999 Norman Jewison film starring Denzel Washington. Dylan accused the prosecution team of framing Carter for the slayings and called them "criminals in their coats and their ties" who were "free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise." Crossman and Hammer are likewise very critical of the prosecution; for example, they think that Alfred Bello should never have been allowed to testify. How could the life of such a man, be in the palm of some fool's hand? And they argue that the prosecution ignored--or perhaps even suppressed--an investigation into a very plausible suspect, Eddie Rawls (who is now deceased). But they stop short of calling it a frame-up and an attempt at judicial murder.

On the other hand, Crossman and Hammer think the "racial revenge motive" was a reasonable one. The very first newspaper accounts of the slaughter at the Lafayette Grill included the speculation that the murders were committed in revenge for the slaying, earlier that night, of black bartender Roy Holloway and this would also be the prosecution's contention. That Crossman and Hammer now accept the plausibility of this theory is a significant concession to the prosecution's version of events, not least because it was Judge Lee Sarokin's rejection of this motive which led him to overturn the second conviction--the prosecution's case, he ruled, had been based on "racism rather than reason."

Coincidentally, on the front page of the East Bergen Record, under the murder story, there was a wire service article about Stokely Carmichael proclaiming "Black Power" at a rally in Mississippi, an event which marked the transition from the peaceful civil rights tactics of Dr. Martin Luther King to the radical activism of the Black Panthers. These two articles encapsulated all the elements of the Lafayette Grill case that continue to be debated over 50 years later. Why did someone walk into a working-class bar and slaughter the occupants? Was the black community in Paterson in a ferment that night because a white man blew off Holloway's head with a shotgun? And what, if anything, did this have to do with the state of race relations in America at the time?

In addition to conducting lengthy interviews with people connected to the case, including Carter's co-defendant, John Artis, Hammer and Crossman studied trial transcripts, newspaper accounts, and books in their search for answers about a case which has come to be synonymous with wrongful convictions and racial injustice. They found an unpublished investigator's report. They uncovered a forgotten stash of cassette tapes of interviews with Carter (who died in 2014). We hear Carter's rich, bombastic utterances throughout the podcasts, hence the podcast series name, "The Hurricane Tapes."

While reviewing the tapes, which Carter made with his co-author Ken Klonsky for his 2011 memoir Eye of the Hurricane, the reporters came to realize that Carter wasn't always truthful, or, as they put it, he is a "complicated" man. Consequently, they warn their listeners that Carter's claims should be taken with a grain of salt. This--evidently unbeknownst to the BBC and their research staff--is the understatement of the decade.

Everything Carter says has to be checked against the record, and checked against what he himself has said over the years. Did he grow up in a nightmare of poverty, violence and racism, as he says on the tapes, or was he telling a reporter the truth in 1975 when he said, "I grew up at a time and in a locality where racism didn't exist... I never knew what racism was. I grew up in a multi-racial situation." (It is true that the violent street gang he led, the Apaches, was integrated.)

Carter's accounts of his movements on the night of the murders were inconsistent and changed significantly from the night of his arrest to the trial a year later. He coached alibi witnesses to lie for him--but most significantly, he rewrote his entire life story to claim that he was an outspoken civil rights activist, which is why he was framed for murder. This particular lie was so successful that he managed to enlist Bob Dylan and other celebrities as supporters. Later, he attracted the loyal support of a group of people called "The Canadians," pro bono legal representation, and he ended up with his arm around Denzel Washington, who proclaimed, "this man is love."

So, Carter's stories deserve more scrutiny than they receive from Crossman and Hammer.

Posted by at April 6, 2019 7:09 AM