‘Hurricane,’ Sarokin join legal experts for panel discussion on habeas corpus
By Randall Beach
NEW HAVEN — Rubin "Hurricane" Carter Wednesday thanked retired Judge H. Lee Sarokin for "saving my life," but warned that many other innocent men are wasting away their lives in prison.
Carter, Sarokin, two legal experts and a journalist came to the Yale University Art Gallery auditorium to praise the writ of habeas corpus as a tool to fight racism and long detentions without trial during the "war on terror."
The event, part of the International Festival of Arts & Ideas, attracted about 100 people, who gave standing ovations to Carter and Sarokin.
The writ of habeas corpus is the legal means through which an individual may request a court review of conditions leading to detainment and conviction. The panelists noted this right has come under attack during the Bush administration’s move against terrorism.
But the experts, including Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh, praised the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last week that Guantanamo Bay prisoners have the right to use habeas corpus petitions, going to federal court to challenge their detentions.
Those in the audience seemed familiar with the details of Carter’s story but they were shown clips from the movie "The Hurricane" and heard snippets of the Bob Dylan song, "Hurrricane." Both works told of the boxer being denied a shot at the middleweight boxing crown because of his arrest and imprisonment.
The film segment showed Sarokin, played by Rod Steiger, reading his decision in U.S. District Court that freed Carter because he had been convicted based on "racism rather than reason and concealment rather than disclosure." This came in 1985, two decades after Carter was given a life sentence for a 1966 triple murder in Paterson, N.J.
Carter’s defense team used a writ of habeas corpus to win his freedom.
Carter, now 71, called Sarokin "an old-fashioned lover of liberty, the kind of man Americans used to love."
"My life was given back to me," Carter said. "Judge Sarokin saved my life. I was on my last legs, after serving 20 excruciating years for something I didn’t do."
Carter said he also narrowly escaped dying in the electric chair.Holding up a couple of tattered pages, a writ of habeas corpus, Carter said, "I consider this to be absolutely sacred. I never leave home without it."
Carter said that if it hadn’t been for that writ and Sarokin, "I would have languished, withered away and died behind bars." But Carter noted that during the same year he was freed, 8,500 other such petitions were filed and only three percent were granted.
Indeed, Sarokin said the courts have made the standards for granting those writs so high that "few people can hurdle over them."
"If his case were heard today," Sarokin said, "Rubin Carter would probably still be in prison."
Sarokin said that just as he was criticized in 1985 for being "soft on crime," the political climate today allows proponents of prisoners’ rights to be widely condemned.
What happened in 1966, when Carter’s legal woes first arose, are "symptomatic of what’s happening today," Sarokin said. "Race plays a part in who’s prosecuted, who’s convicted, who’s on a jury and who gets the death penalty."
Sarokin said Carter is "the greatest testament to the human spirit I have ever known," because he has used his freedom by working with organizations to free others.
Jack Hitt, a journalist who interviewed Guantanamo detainees for a National Public Radio special, claims only about five percent of the prisoners there have ties to al-Qaida. He said many of the others are farmers, shepherds and taxi cab drivers turned in because people were offered bounties for naming them as terrorists.
"We’ve never allowed any of these people to claim they got picked up wrongly," Hitt said.
David Cole, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said the U.S. Supreme Court decision merely gives those detainees "the right to get into the courtroom door, not to be released." And he said it does not affect up to 20,000 others being held around the world in facilities such as "secret CIA prisons."
Cole said, "We need to change the culture," the pervasive belief that "criminals are getting off on technicalities." He suggested Carter and Sarokin embark on a national tour.
Randall Beach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 789-5766.