By Perry King
When Gus Sinclair thinks back to his work on the Rubin Carter case, his immediate thoughts go to Lisa Peters and her love for the fallen boxer.
“There are two people who I’ve met in my life who had that unshakable will, one was Rubin, and the other was the woman that fell in love with him,” said the Harbord Village resident.
In Eye of the Hurricane: My Path from Darkness to Freedom, released at a book launch at the Ontario Institute of Studies in Education (252 Bloor St. W) on Jan. 28, Carter tells his life story, including his childhood and adolescence, incarceration, and dedication to working for the wrongfuly convicted. However, he does not mention the years he spent living in a commune with the Canadians who helped him find freedom.
Not a word is written about Peters. Sinclair lived in the commune with Carter for three years.
Carter, nicknamed “The Hurricane” because of his prowess as a middleweight boxer, was accused, tried, and twice convicted of a triple-homicide in Paterson, New Jersey in 1966. Much of the legal case was shrouded in late-1960s American civil unrest. A 1999 Macleans article says the prosecution pursued Carter because they perceived him to be a threat in the context of the growing race riots in American cities. Carter, and his alleged partner John Artis, were convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to three life terms.
Over the span of about 18 years, Gus Sinclair was a part of a commune of activists that assisted Carter in his release from prison and his eventual move to midtown Toronto.
According to the Maclean’s article, the commune—a non-partisan non-religious group lead by Sam Chaiton, Terry Swinton, and Peters—came across Carter’s book The Sixteenth Round: From Number 1 Contender to #45472 around 1980, and eventually took up his cause with his attorneys.
Their roles, depicted in Norman Jewison’s 1999 film The Hurricane, were democratic and equal, but Peters quietly became their de facto leader during the course. Her love for Carter, what Sinclair describes as a “jailhouse romance” is a topic less known in the larger public. “She wielded this group, who were not stupid people, to get her man out of jail. In six years, she did it. We were all part of it. I went to New York, along with four others, and we worked all day on the case,” said Sinclair.
“The record of the case, to think of our room as 20 by 20 feet, was three tiers of shelves all full of Rubin’s case history—I mean, from the day he was arrested in 1966 up to the present day, in 1984. But, we knew the record better than anybody, better than Rubin, in the end, and better than the lawyers. The lawyers were excellent guys, but they lived the law and we did the facts.”
The commune uncovered fresh evidence of a forged signature on a phone report falsifying the time of the crime. A combination of the new evidence, and a filed petition of habeas corpus in federal court by Carter’s attorneys, eventually lead to the judge’s setting aside of the convictions in 1985. In subsequent years, the group helped fight the federal court appeal and arranged Carter’s move to Toronto, where he lived with the commune until 1994.
The culprits of the triple-homicide have never been found. “His experience, in my view, it was almost unique. The fact these Canadians came to his aid, and for years helped him out in the most extraordinarily generous way, is one of the great stories of the twentieth century,” says Ken Klonsky, an associate of Carter’s.
Carter was in California when the Gleaner contacted him and could not be reached in time for this story.
As a result of resisting prison rules—to signify that he was innocent—Carter spent a decade of his sentence in solitary confinement. “My belief in my innocence and my stubbornness earned me many trips to solitary confinement, the black hole of silence,” wrote Carter in The Eye of the Hurricane, written with assistance from Klonsky. “I was trapped at the bottom level of human society, the lowest point at which a person can exist without being dead … Aside from my innocence, I had nothing else to hold on to but my life.”
It was his prison environment and spiritual reawakening that has defined his life. Sinclair describes Carter as a strong personality, who is passionate and a dynamic speaker. “His personality is perfectly suited to [approach] something like opposing the New Jersey state prison system in that way. It’s those personality traits that don’t make him a team player,” said Sinclair.
According to the Maclean’s article, “Carter, who had developed a taste for solitude, chafed at communal living. In this house that prohibited liquor, he was also struggling with alcoholism. And he was constantly at odds with Lisa. After a string of splits and reconciliations, he quit the commune for good in 1994.” The sides have not spoken since.
Sinclair also left the commune, for reasons not stated, in 1988. “There’s all kinds of bruised feelings out there on the part of my former colleagues, whom I haven’t spoken to … They refused to see me because I walked out of there because it was a toxic environment and I was low man on the totem pole and I wasn’t going to take it anymore.”
But Carter’s relationship with Sinclair did not end there. After becoming appointed as executive director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted (AIDWYC) in 1993, Carter reached out to Sinclair and asked him to join the AIDWYC board. Sinclair accepted, and still sits on the board to this day.
Carter left his post as executive director in 2005 when the prosecutor of Canadian Guy Paul Morin, a wrongfully convicted man, was promoted to a judgeship and AIDWYC declined to support Carter’s protest of the appointment. Carter asked for five AIDWYC board members to resign, but was denied. Carter and Sinclair have not spoken since.
Today, Carter takes up the cause of the decrepit culture of prisons through his initiative Innocence International, established about seven years ago with Klonsky. “There have been big downs and big ups with this relationship, but mostly it’s been, I think, of my benefit. In the end, I think I’m richer. It’s more than a book, it’s an understanding of the world I simply did not have,” said Klonsky.
A chapter excerpt from Eye of the Hurricane has been included in Descant‘s ‘Writer in Prison’ issue. Descant’s fall launch was held at Revival (783 College St.), where Carter, Klonsky, and others read from their contributions.
It was at this launch that Sinclair and Carter saw each other for the first time in almost a decade. They nodded hello to each other, but did not speak.
To learn more about Rubin Carter and the Innocence Project, visit www.rubinthehurricanecarter.com/innocence.html
The Eye of the Hurricane can be purchased at A Different Booklist and at other book stores.