H. Lee Sarokin, judge who freed ‘Hurricane’ Carter, dies at 94

H. Lee Sarokin, a federal judge who freed boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and in a landmark case famously said tobacco companies engaged in a “vast” conspiracy to conceal the dangers of smoking, has died in California, news outlets reported Friday. He was 94.

Sarokin died Tuesday in La Jolla, a seaside community in San Diego where he and his wife lived in retirement, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

Sarokin had pulmonary fibrosis and other ailments, his wife, Margie Sarokin, told the paper.

Haddon Lee Sarokin was a New Jersey-born graduate of Dartmouth College and Harvard Law School. He was nominated to a federal judgeship by former President Jimmy Carter and served on the district court in New Jersey from 1979 to 1994 and the appeals court from 1994 to 1996.

In 1985, Sarokin threw out the convictions of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and John Artis, two Black men who were wrongfully convicted of killing three white men. Sarokin ruled that their prosecution was based “upon an appeal to racism rather than reason, concealment rather than disclosure.”

The ruling stood after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

Carter’s innocence had been championed by celebrities and was the basis of a 1975 song by Bob Dylan.

Sarokin told the Union-Tribune in 2014 that Carter called him every year on Nov. 7, the anniversary of the ruling.

In 1988, Sarokin also presided over a landmark liability case against tobacco companies. Sarokin’s pre-trial rulings opened the way for corporate records to be submitted as evidence. When lawyers for the company asked Sarokin to dismiss the case in their favor, he refused, saying famously that evidence showed the tobacco industry engaged in a conspiracy “vast in its scope, devious in its purpose and devastating in its results.”

The case resulted in a jury awarding $400,000 to the estate of Rose Cipollone, who had died after decades of smoking.

An appeals court overturned the verdict and removed Sarokin from a second similar case, saying some of Sarokin’s comments suggested bias against the tobacco makers, which he denied. However, documents in the case helped pave the way for a wave of similar lawsuits brought by state attorneys general in 1998.

Sarokin issued some 2,500 rulings over his career, among them deciding that a homeless man couldn’t be barred from a public library because of his smell.

“He was never afraid to say what he thought,” his wife said.

In retirement, Sarokin was a regular contributor to HuffPost and wrote a dozen plays with themes of social justice and civil rights that were staged by the regional North Coast Repertory Theater.

In addition to his wife, Sarokin is survived by five children and 11 grandchildren.

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