The judicial world mourns the loss of H. Lee Sarokin, a distinguished federal judge known for his landmark decisions and unwavering dedication to justice. Sarokin, who passed away at the age of 94, played a pivotal role in freeing boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter and gained recognition for his bold assertion that tobacco companies conspired to hide the dangers of smoking. Throughout his illustrious career, Sarokin exemplified integrity, compassion, and a relentless pursuit of truth.

Born in New Jersey in 1927, he embarked on a remarkable legal career that spanned several decades. After earning his law degree from Harvard Law School, Sarokin served as a Deputy Attorney General in New Jersey before being appointed as a federal judge by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Throughout his tenure, Sarokin remained steadfast in his commitment to fairness and equality under the law.

The Rubin “Hurricane” Carter Case


One of Sarokin’s most notable cases was the exoneration of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a professional boxer who was wrongfully convicted of a triple murder in New Jersey in 1966. Sarokin reviewed the evidence and concluded that Carter’s trial had been marred by racial bias and prosecutorial misconduct. In 1985, he overturned Carter’s conviction, granting him a new trial and ultimately leading to his release in 1988.

Sarokin found 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.

The Tobacco Conspiracy

In another groundbreaking case, Sarokin made headlines by declaring that tobacco companies were involved in a massive conspiracy to conceal the dangers of smoking. His 1995 ruling in Castano v. American Tobacco Company was a significant blow to the tobacco industry. Sarokin found that the companies had engaged in a deliberate and systematic campaign to deceive the public about the health risks associated with smoking.

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.

Legacy of Justice

Lee Sarokin’s contributions to the legal field extended far beyond these landmark cases. Throughout his career, he consistently advocated for fairness, transparency, and the protection of individual rights. Sarokin’s decisions and writings served as a guiding light for future generations of jurists, inspiring them to question established norms and fight for justice.

In addition to his legal prowess, Sarokin will be remembered for his compassionate approach to the law. He recognized the importance of considering the human impact of judicial decisions, emphasizing empathy and understanding. His commitment to social justice extended beyond the courtroom, as he frequently spoke out on issues of racial inequality and advocated for reform in the criminal justice system.