- The Washington Times - Monday, February 7, 2000

Rubin Carter is the subject of a much-discussed movie, "The Hurricane," in which Denzel Washington brilliantly portrays the man who for so long was falsely imprisoned and who narrowly escaped execution.
Except for National Public Radio's expert on legal affairs, Nina Totenberg, reviewers of the movie have missed an essential element of the Rubin Carter story. It is an element that has to do with cases that are now before the Supreme Court of the United States. The outcome of these cases may save the lives of prisoners in the increasingly crowded death rows of this nation.
As Nina Totenberg said on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered," the most interesting thing about the "Hurricane" Carter case is that "if it were to happen today, there's a strong likelihood that his case would never have had a hearing in federal court of the kind that occurred in 1985 and led to his immediate release."
She was referring to a law passed by Congress in 1996 and enthusiastically signed by President Clinton that drastically reduced the ability of prisoners in state courts to get a federal court to review their convictions.
The law, the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, greatly weakens the writ of habeas corpus that brought "Hurricane" Carter before federal Judge Lee Sarokin, who ruled that he had been unjustly convicted and freed him. Habeas corpus, known as "the Great Writ," provides that after a prisoner has exhausted all the appeals of his conviction in a state court, he can find a federal judge to review whether he has received a fair trial.
Thomas Jefferson considered habeas corpus so vital to this new constitutional democracy that he urged James Madison, the principal first drafter of the Constitution, to ensure that it contained, in a strong form, "the eternal and unremitting force of habeas corpus."
But in 1996, Mr. Clinton and Congress so sharply reduced habeas corpus that prisoners especially those on death row now have, with very few exceptions, only one year to get a federal judge to review their convictions. Since executions resumed in 1976 in this country, 84 prisoners scheduled for execution have been released, through habeas corpus, because they had been wrongfully convicted. Before being freed, their average time on death row was seven-and-a-half-years.
Rubin Carter, though spared execution, had been in prison for 19 years; but when Judge Sarokin freed him, he was not limited to just one year to prove his innocence. Under Mr. Clinton's subsequent crippling of habeas corpus, says Judge Sarokin, "my decision probably would be reversed, and he would still be in prison."
This is only part of the hidden story of Rubin Carter and the widely publicized movie, "The Hurricane." Nina Totenberg provided a bitter footnote: "President Clinton saw the movie 'The Hurricane' at a White House screening and is reported to have been most impressed by Carter's persistence and courage. The president gave no indication that he knew or understood that the bill he signed into law would have made Carter's persistence futile."
Rubin Carter himself was at the White House, where he spoke with the president about his by now legendary persistence in overcoming a deeply unjust conviction. But the president, characteristically, has yet to say that his cherished Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act is itself a destructive assault on what Thomas Jefferson believed would continue to be "the eternal and unremitting force of habeas corpus."

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide