BLOWN AWAY BY A HURRICANE
Born in Portsmouth, Virginia, his mother was a crop picker, then a domestic servant and his father was a labourer who became a chemical engineer. He had one sister.
Not wanting their children to grow up in a segregated city as Portsmouth was, the family moved to Paterson, New Jersey when John was eight. His parents always emphasised the importance of education.
There he was a boy scout and sang in a church choir. He attended Paterson Central High where he ran for the track team and also played football and basketball. His dream was to play in the NFL. John was also undefeated for three years in school spelling bees.
He graduated in 1966 and intended to go to university, but his mother died, so he postponed his education for a year and got a temporary job as a truck driver.
One night in October 1966, John (aged 19) had worked a late shift and was walking home. He passed a nightclub just as a passing acquaintance, Rubin Carter was coming out. John asked Carter if there was any chance of a lift home.
Afraid he might be over the limit, Carter threw John the keys to his white Dodge Polara and asked him to drive.
Carter was already a local celebrity. He was an extremely talented middleweight boxer who many people predicted would go right to the top and be world champion. His nickname was ‘Hurricane’ due to his fighting style.
A few blocks further on, they were pulled over by a police car and to their amazement they were arrested. The following day they were charged with murder.
That night, two black men had murdered three white men in the Lafayette Bar and Grill in Paterson. The getaway car was similar to Carter’s.
Both men denied murder. They took lie detector tests and both passed. They both provided alibis. A witness to the murder said Carter and Artis were not the killers.
But they were still put on trial.
And then the prosecution produced two witnesses. They were men who had been burgling a property near to the bar and claimed they had seen Carter and Artis running from the scene of the murder.
An all-white male jury found them guilty. They were both sentence to three life sentences and told it would be at least 14 years before they could apply for parole.
John was remarkably philosophical about this. “I said to myself, that’s 14 football seasons and 14 basketball seasons. I can do this.”
John also said he had been approached by aides from the Governor of New Jersey who told him if he turned state evidence and accused Carter of the offence, he himself would be out in two weeks. He said, “I’m not lying. We didn’t do it. We weren’t there, and I’m not going to get involved in any of that.”
When Rubin Carter heard this story he called John, “My hero.”
John was sent to Rahway State Prison in New Jersey. Carter was in a cell opposite him.
There, John played for (and coached) the prison football team, who stayed unbeaten for three years, started a track team (they raced for cigarettes) and taught illiterate prisoners to read and write.
In 1971 there was a riot at Rahway State Prison. Artis rescued four prison guards who had been taken prisoner by other inmates. He demanded they be released to him, and then he led them to safety. As a reward he was transferred to a minimum-security prison where he was able to take college courses and ultimately a degree, awarded by Rowan University.
In 1974, both burglars recanted their story, saying the police had put pressure on them to nail the ‘Hurricane’. But Artis and Carter stayed in prison.
In 1975, Bob Dylan read Carter’s autobiography. He came to visit Carter at his prison and then wrote the song ‘Hurricane’ about the miscarriage of justice. It was played on his Rolling Thunder Review Tour and became a hit around the world. But at no point in the song is John Artis mentioned.
And a massive campaign began to release the men. Muhammed Ali joined the clamour.
In 1976, the New Jersey Supreme Court overturned the convictions saying that the prosecution had withheld vital evidence which would have proved their innocence.
He was free – but only for 9 months. Then he and Hurricane Carter were re-arrested and there was a second trial. One of the burglars had recanted his recantation – and once again accused them of murder. They were sent back to prison.
In what he called his second spell in prison, he taught himself the drums. He also got married, to Dolly Williams (although this ended in divorce when he was released).
He was also diagnosed with the very rare Buerger’s Disease. It is a rare condition where blood struggles to circulate. He had to have some fingers and toes amputated.
Both Carter and John Artis reached their parole in 1981. He had been in prison just short of 15 years. Multiple appeals had been rejected. And on the outside, he still fought to prove his innocence.
Angry at the American justice system, Rubin Carter moved to Toronto in Canada.
In 1985, Judge H. Lee Sarokin overturned the convictions. He said the prosecution case was “Based on racism rather than reason.”
John said, “It has taken 20 years for the truth to come out and for someone to show all the red herrings that the prosecution used to convict us.”
But his health was getting worse. He read in a medical magazine that cocaine had been used to relieve symptoms of circulatory disease – so he started taking cocaine.
He was arrested in 1987 and charged with conspiracy to distribute $50 of cocaine and possession of a stolen handgun. He pleaded guilty. Technically, he was a first-time offender and should have been put on probation, but in his summary the judge cited the murder case (despite it having been quashed) and John was sent to prison for another 6 years.
The following year, 1988, his sentence was overturned, and he was released again.
But at the same time the US Supreme Court refused to order an enquiry into the triple murder.
There was a film made about their case, starring Denzel Washington as Rubin Carter. John was played by Garland Whitt, but it is a very minor role. John ruefully commented, “I was always the guy in the background.”
John moved away from New Jersey and back to the Virginia of his childhood, living in Hampton. There he started counselling inmates at Norfolk Juvenile Detention Centre.
Additionally, he started working on cases of wrongful arrest and imprisonment, travelling across the USA and into Canada.
And John remained close friends with Rubin Carter. When the latter contracted prostate cancer, he moved to Toronto to look after him until the ‘Hurricane’ died in 2014.
John also dedicated himself to campaigning for a fairer criminal justice system in the USA. During his time in jail, he had calculated the months, the weeks, the days, the hours, the minutes and the seconds he had been incarcerated (the last one came out at 4.7 million seconds). He also noted despite being imprisoned alongside some very violent and dangerous men, he had never once been attacked (such was the respect other prisoners had for him).
He was once asked if he had considered suing New Jersey for wrongful conviction. He responded, “They couldn’t pay me what I want.” He said he had once been offered $2 million but said he wanted, “$200 billion for every year, every day.”
“I will not let them determine what they think my life is worth. I’ve seen what they think it’s worth – nothing!”
And yet he was not bitter. He always had a smile on his face, would help anybody in need and was known for his catchphrase of “Cool beans.”
He died at home of a gastric aneurysm.
A friend, Fred Hogan said, “He had a relatively healthy attitude compared to what most people would have. He just wanted to put that prison time behind him.”
Justin Brooks, co-founder of the ‘California Innocence Project’, who worked extensively with John in his later years said, “Carter and Artis’ suffering led to the freedom of so many other people who found themselves in the same situation. We’re very sad that they are both now gone, but their legacies live on in all our work.”
Nobody else was ever arrested for the murders.
RIP – Rubin’s Imprisoned Partner