Interview with Paul Wice, author of Robin "Hurricane" Carter and the American Justice System
Q:Why did you decide to write this book? What was it about the Carter case that inspired your research?
A:I knew a little bit about the case and when a friend suggested I look into it because a Drew University alum who I had once met was the judge in the second trial and would provide me with some useful material in understanding the case, I agreed to review it. As I learned more about the case my enthusiasm and curiosity increased. The timing was good because I had just finished a book and was looking for a new project. The facts of the case read like a made-for-television true crime thriller with many unexpected twists and fascinating characters.
Q:Many books have been written about this case. What makes yours unique?
A:Actually there have been only three books written about Carter and the case. In 1974, Carter wrote an autobiography (The Sixteenth Round). His story concluded well before his second trial commenced. A second book, Lazarus and the Hurricane, was written by two Canadians who befriended Carter in 1981 and assisted him in his successful federal appeal. This book formed the basis for the screenplay in the recent movie, The Hurricane, starring Denzel Washington. It makes no apology for its strongly pro-Carter bias. As the movie was released in December of 1999, a new authorized biography written by journalist James Hirsch was published. The emphasis in all three books is on Carter rather than on his complex legal struggle. I believe my book differs from these prior works in its emphasis on the legal rather than the personal aspects of the case, its effort to remain objective, and in its comprehensive approach to the case tracing it from the crime scene through both trials and all subsequent appeals at both the state and federal level.
Q:Who are some of the people you interviewed for this book?
A:I interviewed a small group of judges, defense attorneys, and prosecutors as well as a few journalists and public officials. Most wished to remain anonymous. Most of the people I contacted refused to speak, stating that too much time had passed or that the public record and newspapers told the entire story and they had nothing to add.
Q:You write that some of the people who consented to interviews were cautiously guarded in their comments, even though much of what they refused to discuss could easily be found in court documents or newspaper accounts. Why do you think people were so reticent?
A:Even though it has been over 20 years since the case was resolved, and 35 since the shootings occurred, the passions and hard feelings raised by this case are still evident. Especially with the movie's release, participants in the case were on their guard. Most understood that Carter would be viewed sympathetically while the Passaic County criminal justice establishment was likely to be characterized negatively. Interviewees were therefore nervous about making public statements that could possibly come back to haunt them. Many simply chose not to be interviewed or answered my questions in a cursory manner. Those that spoke in greater detail did so with the understanding that their comments would remain anonymous. A final reason for their reticence may have been the result of the long passage of time since the case was concluded as well as the numerous still unresolved questions.
Q:You interviewed many people involved with the case, but not Carter himself. Why?
A:I tried to reach Carter and obtain an interview, but was unsuccessful. He currently lives in Canada with an unlisted phone number. I do not believe his absence significantly affects the book since I was able to locate additional sources. His autobiography was helpful on his early life.
Q:If Carter and Artis were to be tried by a jury today, rather than in the 1960s and 1970s, do you think the verdict would be different? Why or why not?
A:This is a very difficult question but I think the defendants would still have a difficult time, especially if the jury was dominated by white jurors as in the first two trials. The demographics of the city of Paterson have changed significantly with a large Hispanic and Middle Eastern community, but overall the county is not too different. What impact the passage of 20 years would have upon a new group of jurors is impossible to estimate with any degree of confidence.
Q:Throughout the book, you point out the many examples of contradictory testimony and evidence that you feel should have made it difficult for a jury to find Carter and Artis guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet two juries concluded, with less than six hours of deliberation at each of the trials, that the defendants had committed the crimes. Why do you think they reached these decisions?
A:For two reasons. First, they felt the pressure of the white community (their neighbors) and the Paterson power structure (police and politicians) which demanded a conviction. They feared what would happen if an aggressive, outspoken black man like Carter was acquitted and sent back into the community. This was especially true after the first trial in 1967 when racial tensions were at their zenith. Second, the white jurors assumed that if the prosecutor believed enough in Bello and Bradley to put them on the stand, then they must be telling the truth. The only way for Carter to be acquitted was for the jurors to dismiss the judgment of the Paterson police and county prosecutor and they could not be expected to do that.