What's Wrong with Judge Sarokin's Decision?

By Jonathan R.

It was Federal District Court Judge Lee Sarokin's 1985 decision that set Rubin Carter free. That decision was full of inaccuracies and misstatements regarding the facts of the case -- so many that I asked Jonathan if he'd compile a rundown. Here is his summary of how Sarokin got it wrong. [For the Prosecutor's brief responding to Sarokin's decision, see short version (50 pages, html) or the long version (218 pages, PDF)

  What Sarokin Says... The Prosecutor's Reponse
IDENTIFICATION OF DEFENDANT CARTERS 1966 DODGE CAR There is nothing in the police reports to indicate that Valentine identified the car at the scene The police report said that when Valentine saw the car when it was brought to the scene, she "became hysterical." Pat Valentine says she identified it at the scene, in the police garage and picked it out of a book of car photos.
Valentine mis-identified the car as a Dodge Monaco, instead of a Dodge Polara Valentine testified that she did not know the difference between a Monaco and a Polara, but she was sure the getaway car and the Carter's car were the same.
In the 1967 trial, Valentine called the rear of Carter's car "similar" to the car that she saw, but in 1976 trial she said it was identical In fact it was not Valentine but a defense attorney in 1967 trial who used the word "similar" in asking her if the getaway car looked "similar" to Carter's car. She said yes.
Bello must not have precisely identified the getaway car because the police radio call did not mention the out-of-state plates or the taillights It was Bello's on-the-spot mention of the out-of-state plates and the taillights to Officer Capter that caused Capter to go out looking for Carter's car, which he had stopped about 10 minutes after the crime.
The police chased and stopped other white cars after the shootings None of the other white cars had out-of-state plates.
THE SHOTGUN SHELL AND BULLET The vouchering delay for the bullet and the shell proves that the shell came from the Holloway murder There was a handgun bullet in the car. The Holloway murder was committed with a shotgun.
The ammo in the car did not "match" the ammo that was used in the Lafayette murders A ballistics expert testified that two different kinds of ammo were used in the murders. The ammo in the car could indeed have been loaded into the weapons used in the murders.
MOVEMENTS OF THE DEFENDANTS AT THE TIME OF THE MURDERS Ignores the evidence regarding the route traveled by the Dodge and does not make any reference to a diagram in which the prosecution presents the route of travel The Dodge went onto 12th Avenue at 2:34. It must have stopped somewhere because it was seen by Valentine at the time of the murders and not seen again until then. The car went from the Lafayette Grill murder scene to the Nite Spot to Eddie Rawls' house on E. 28th Street.
Officer Capter "chased" a white car out of town. Capter did not "chase" the car. Because it was from out of state and presumably headed out of town, Capter tried to intercept it by cutting it off at a bridge leading to the next town. When he got to the bridge, there were no other cars on the road. Capter indicated that the car he saw speeding down 12th Avenue looked the same as the Carter car when he stopped it. Also, the defense admitted that Carter's car was traveling down 12th Avenue, but minutes later.
SEARCH FOR GUNS The search for the guns might have happened even before Carter had heard about the murder of Holloway Sworn testimony shows that some time after hearing about the murder of Holloway and discussing "shaking" (retaliation), Carter went looking for his weapons, which he had been missing for quite some time.
There is no evidence that Carter found his guns. The fact that Carter searched for the guns only after discussing retaliation for the Holloway murder shows his intention to take revenge, whether with his own guns or with some other guns.
THE STATEMENTS OF THE DEFENDANTS Lieutenant DeSimone's testimony on Carter's account of his whereabouts cannot be believed for some reason Sarokin gives more weight to the claims of Carter, a convicted criminal with his freedom at stake who did not take the stand, than those of Lt. DeSimone.
Incorrectly refers to the NJ Supreme Court's critcism of the admissibility of DeSimone's notes The NJ court was concerned with the notes because of an issue related to the first trial, not to the second. Since Sarokin is mostly focusing on the second trial, his reference to the NJ court is misleading
Even while shifting gears and referring to the first trial, Sarokin ignores testimony in the first trial from a rebuttal witness The witness contradicted Artis' claim of his whereabouts
STRUCTURING AND SUBMITTING A FALSE ALIBI Welton Deary, one of the original alibi witnesses who recanted, cannot be believed because he had become a police officer Deary's testimony was an admission that he had committed a FELONY in the first trial; why would he go out of his way to make such an admission?
Anna Brown perjured herself to help her daughter marry a policeman Being the mother of a woman who is engaged to a policeman (Anna Brown) is not sufficient motivation to lie on the stand.
According to precedent, a fabricated alibi does not lessen the prosecution's burden of proof That particular precedent is inappropriate for this case because there is much other evidence that helps the prosecution meet its burden of proof.
THE REVENGE MOTIVE The taped interview with Bello in which DeSimone first mentions the revenge motive, was brought up by the prosecution The tape was first played by the defense. Now the defense is claiming that the prosecution shouldn't have used the theory in its arguments. The defense wants it both ways
There is no evidence that Carter knew a white man had killed Holloway The news had spread quite fast. According to Artis, it was the first thing he and Carter discussed upon meeting that night. Also, why would they talk of "shaking" if they didn't know that a white man had been the killer?
Carter was just reaching the peak of his career, which backs up his claim that he had too much to lose by committing a crime Carter's career was in decline
Artis was considering a college scholarship at the time of the murders There is no evidence that any such scholarship existed. In fact Artis testified that he had been unemployed for some time and that he was about to be drafted.
There was no motive to shoot a "stranger" such as James Oliver James Oliver was not just any stranger; he was a bartender who had a reputation for bigotry, a "perfect target" given the circumstances of the Holloway murder.
The only "blatantly racial statement" in the trial was Bello's testimony that a detective referred to "niggers and animals." Bello recanted these statements. Also, Sarokin does not mention that these statements were placed into evidence by the defense, not the prosecution.
THE IDENTIFICATION OF THE DEFENDANTS Bello's testimony was not believable and was the "pillar" of the case

Bello's testimony was not in fact the "pillar" of the case. However, if Sarokin thinks it was, he should believe Bello.

  • Bello was rigorously cross-examined.
  • Bello was at the scene just after the murders and described the getaway car and the murderers.
  • Bello was seen by Rocky Ruggerio running down Lafayette street with a white car behind him.
  • Bello never changed the story he told in open court; his various recantations, however, did contradict each other.
  • Bello's story of how he came to give his recantation in response to a bribe offer is credible and supported by other testimony, which Sarokin ignores.
  • Judge Larner ruled on the recantation (he said it lacked the ring of truth), a ruling ignored by Sarokin.
Accepts Bello's "I was in the bar" story Testimony in the 1976 trial proves that Carter's agents were responsible for soliciting this story
LEGAL ISSUES SURROUNDING THE REVENGE MOTIVE Disregards eleven previous courts' rulings about the revenge motive.
  • The motive was not even allowed until the trial had been well under way and the judge had a "sense" of the issue.
  • Prosecution had notified the court and the defense before the trial.
  • There were two blacks on the jury, which had been given an extensive voir dire and was from a another county.
  • The revenge issue was raised by the defense, not the prosecution, which had not given its position on the motive.
  • The evidence itself showed something besides robbery was the motive.
The prosecution made an appeal to racism If so, and the jurors suddenly became racists because of the prosecution, why didn't the two black jurors' racism negate that of the whites?
Because "shaking" is not specifically identified as murder, it could not have been part of the motive for the murders Except for the murders in the Lafayette, there was no other act committed that night that could be construed as retaliation for the Holloway murder
Motive requires the jury to believe that "blacks in general" commit murder as a matter of routine when one of their own is murdered. Prosecution made no such claim, and Sarokin does not cite any evidence that they did, or that they tried to plant the idea in the jurors' minds. No previous court had ever supported that claim
There is some "unarticulated assumption" that Eddie Rawls was instrumental in the murders. Sarokin does not state what exactly was wrong with that assumption.
Singles out a remark by the prosecutor that "we do not live in an ideal world free from racial prejudice...some blacks and some whites violated the law..." as inflammatory. Sarokin singles out this one remark, but does not mention that the summation by Carter's defense attorney used extremely inappropriate and inflammatory terms.
POLYGRAPH RESULTS The prosecution's disclosing of the preliminary oral report of the Harrelson polygraph examination of Bello would have helped the defense in presenting their case The report would have shown that Bello told the truth about seeing Carter and Artis with guns in their hands outside the Lafayette right after the murders
The failure to disclose Harrelson's oral report of the polygraph constituted concealment of evidence. The prosecution had not even accepted the oral report--it was understood that the official results would be a written report. In addition, the defense argued that Harrelson was manipulated by the prosecution when in fact he had testified about the test and the report, and was subject to cross-examination. Also, after the Harrelson report turned out to be so confusing, the prosecution hired ANOTHER polygraph expert (Arther) to remove their doubts.
WRIT OF HABEAS CORPUS Grants a writ of Habeas Corpus Habeas corpus principle states that a conviction must stand unless there was a complete miscarriage of justice. The conviction of Carter and Artis was just given the evidence against them.