Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter

Former boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter holds up the writ of habeas corpus that freed him from prison, during a news conference held in Sacramento, Calif., in 2004. Carter, who spent almost 20 years in jail after twice being convicted of a triple murder he denied committing, has died at his home in Toronto at 76. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press / January 29, 2004)

When Rubin "Hurricane" Carter was at his best as a boxer, it would have been impossible to foresee Nelson Mandela or Bob Dylan doing him any favors.

With his fearsome, drop-dead glare, precisely cut goatee and glistening, shaved head, Carter was violent and swaggering, a white racist's caricature of a dangerous black man.

Talking to sportswriter Milton Gross for a 1964 story in the Saturday Evening Post, Carter made a widely publicized joking remark about killing cops in Harlem. At a weigh-in before a December 1963 fight against Emile Griffith, he chided his opponent by declaring: "You talk like a champ but you fight like a woman who deep down wants to be raped!"

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The fight was stopped two minutes and 13 seconds into the first round, with Griffith collapsing in pain as Carter pummeled him, yelling: "You gotta pay the Hurricane!'"

But, despite an explosive temper and a tendency to brag about acts like stabbing a man "everywhere but the bottom of his feet" when he was 14, Carter successfully fought the system that wrongly imprisoned him for 19 years. Convicted with a codefendant of three 1966 New Jersey barroom murders they did not commit, Carter was the subject of a Dylan anthem and a 1999 film starring Denzel Washington. Nobel laureate Mandela wrote a foreword for Carter's 2012 memoir "Eye of the Hurricane."

"Rubin woke up in prison and became a free man," Mandela wrote. "His rich heart is now alive in love, compassion, and understanding."

Carter died Sunday at his home in Toronto, Canada. He was 76.

Carter had been battling prostate cancer for three years, said Win Wahrer, an official with the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, a group Carter headed from 1993 to 2004.

"He was a complicated man but very inspirational," Wahrer said. "He was the voice of the wrongly convicted when they didn't have one."

Carter's example inspired Bernard Hopkins, the light-heavyweight world champion who at 49 won a key title bout Saturday.

During his incarceration for strong-arm robbery from 1984 to 1988, Hopkins learned of Carter and always wondered how "the bald-headed, black man in America at that time" persevered.

"That was a profound way to fight," Hopkins told The Times, "a profound way not to lie down, a profound fight for freedom.... There has to be a situation where redemption is always there as an option."

After an all-white jury in Paterson, N.J., deliberated for less than two hours in 1967, Carter and an acquaintance, John Artis, were found guilty of fatally shooting a bartender, a waitress and a customer at the Lafayette Bar and Grill. Another customer was wounded but survived.

After they won an appeal based on two key witnesses recanting their testimony, a second jury convicted them again in 1976.

Artis, who was with Carter when he died, was paroled in 1981.

The next year, the New Jersey Supreme Court upheld the convictions, but defense attorneys appealed to the federal courts. Carter was released in 1985, after years of celebrity-studded benefits and a public relations campaign directed by top Madison Avenue adman George Lois.

In a blistering ruling, U.S. District Court Judge H. Lee Sarokin cited "grave constitutional violations." He wrote that Carter's prosecution was "predicated upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, and concealment rather than disclosure."

Prosecutors contended that the Lafayette killings were racially motivated payback for the shooting of a black bartender at another bar earlier that evening.

They were found to have withheld a tape recording on which a witness was offered the possibility of a reward and lenient treatment for alleged crimes in return for testifying against Carter and Artis.