04/21/2014 17:19 EDT | Updated 06/21/2014 05:59 EDT

Hurricane Carter and Steven Truscott refused to be 'condemned by history'

Their first meeting lasted only 30 minutes, but Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and Steven Truscott shared a lifetime of fighting injustice by finding the inner strength not to give into bitterness and anger.

It was May 2000. Carter, by then the famous and fiery face of the wrongly convicted, chatted with Truscott as he was about to publicly launch his last-chance appeal to clear his name.

"We talked about surviving," Carter, who died Sunday at the age of 76, later told me when I interviewed him for a book I was writing on the Truscott case. "And in order to survive, you have to stop being a victim."

Both men had become powerful symbols in the United States and Canada of a justice system gone awry.

Carter had spent 19 years behind bars after being falsely accused of a triple murder in New Jersey, and his story inspired a Bob Dylan song and a Hollywood movie that depicted his life as a boxer who championed the cause of the wrongly convicted.

Truscott, for his part, became a household name in Canada after being condemned to hang when he was just 14 years old for the 1959 slaying of a classmate in Clinton, Ont.

His sentence was commuted to life in prison just weeks before the scheduled hanging, and his controversial case helped shape the debate to abolish the death penalty in Canada.

Paroled after 10 years, Truscott quietly waited for three decades until his three children were adults before stepping forward in the spring of 2000 in a fifth estate documentary I produced to launch his public battle to clear his name.

Carter admired Truscott's 'courage to re-open old wounds'

Six weeks after that program aired in May 2000, Truscott attended a press conference organized by the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, of which Carter was the executive director at the time.

Shortly before the news conference began, Carter had taken a nervous Truscott  for a coffee to prepare him for his new battle in the glare of the public spotlight.

Quiet and reserved, Truscott immediately got along with the loud and boisterous Carter. The former boxer recalled a "soft, warm person" sipping coffee across the table from him.

Carter told Truscott he was impressed by his "courage to re-open old wounds" by stepping into the spotlight.

"He's doing it for the same reason I did it," Carter explained. "I refuse to be condemned by history. ‘Talk to me, listen to me’ is what we’re saying."

"Hang in there," Hurricane told Truscott as they finished their 30-minute chat. "Believe in yourself."

When Truscott stepped before the awaiting cameras and news reporters, what surprised many of the reporters was his lack of anger. Several times, journalists pressed him: Your youth was stolen, you were taken away from your family, how could you not be bitter?

"I don't think you can be bitter and raise a family," he said. "I've moved on. I'm not really wanting for anything except to have my name cleared."

Many parallels

It  would take seven more years before the Ontario Court of Appeal in 2007 would finally overturn his conviction as "a miscarriage of justice," and the provincial government eventually awarded him $6.5 million in compensation.

But over the years, it remains one of the most frequent questions people ask me about Steven Truscott: he seems so calm and centred, why isn't he angrier at what was taken from him?

I explain that Truscott learned what Carter did: that if you allow the bitterness to eat away at you and ruin your life, you remain trapped behind those prison bars.

Don't forgive or forget, but save your strength for the fight.

That’s what Carter told me when I interviewed him at his small Toronto apartment. He was only too proud to show me the screenplay for The Hurricane, the movie based on his life, autographed for him by the Hollywood star who played him in the film, Denzel Washington.

Carter told me he felt an unspoken bond with Truscott, the kind of solidarity shared only by people who have been thrown in jail for a crime they know they did not commit.

There were other parallels in the lives and struggles of the two men.

Both had to fight discouragement as they lost many court appeals – Truscott’s guilt was even re-affirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada – before ultimately triumphing.

Both took an active role in speaking out for the wrongly convicted.

Both, too, were struck by prostate cancer, the disease that ultimately claimed Carter's life.

Truscott was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2012 but has since fully recovered, showing the same quiet determination in dealing with his illness that marked his battle to clear his name.

"You're put on this earth, and what’s thrown at you — you either handle it or you don’t," Truscott told me. "Worrying about it isn’t going to make it go away."

The Hurricane's spirit as a fighter who never quits still lives on.

Julian Sher is the senior producer of CBC Television’s the fifth estate and the author of Until You Are Dead: Steven Truscott’s Long Ride into History.