On a lazy afternoon in February 1961, Wilbert Rideau decided to rob a bank in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Rideau, a smart but impulsive eighth-grade dropout from a violent home, had counted on making a quick, clean getaway, just like the ones he’d seen in the movies, but his plans unraveled during the heist when a phone call to the bank revealed that the police were closing in. Rideau took three hostages, commandeered a car and, as darkness fell, got lost on the back roads outside town. At a bayou crossing the passengers bolted, and Rideau opened fire. Two survived and vanished into the night, but the third, a teller named Julia Ferguson, was wounded by the gunfire and then stabbed to death by Rideau with a hunting knife. A 19-year-old black man had killed a white woman. In no time, Rideau was under arrest.
Outside the jail, a mob formed. "Hang that nigger," a voice called out. But the officers held their man, confident that justice would be swift and severe. "It was a good little town back then," a deputy sheriff later explained to a reporter. "Ever’body did their job. The prosecutors, the law enforcement…. You didn’t have to worry about lynching because they lynched ’em for you."
The trial, as Rideau recalls in his gripping memoir In the Place of Justice, was "merely a formality," played out by white attorneys before a white judge and an all-white jury. "I was the only black in sight, a fly in a bowl of milk," he writes. The place was Calcasieu Parish, at the height of the backlash against the civil rights movement, when Louisiana lawmakers had voted to close down the state’s public schools rather than integrate them. Rideau was guilty of terrible crimes—armed robbery, kidnapping and homicide—but the district attorney stretched and suppressed evidence to prove premeditation, a necessary condition for a capital conviction. Julia Ferguson’s stabbing wounds became an attempted beheading, an embellishment later undermined by pathology photographs. A meandering oral confession got replaced by a tidier version, written by an FBI agent, that detailed plans to murder every witness. Physical evidence from the crime scene disappeared. The verdict was certain: death.
When it reviewed the roughshod proceedings on appeal, the US Supreme Court assailed Calcasieu Parish’s "kangaroo court" and reversed the conviction. But a second trial before another all-white jury in the same venue returned the same verdict. At that point the defendant would have run out of options were it not for an ancient legal instrument that dates back at least to the sixteenth century, and indirectly to the Magna Carta: habeas corpus. Literally an order to "have the body" of a detainee brought into court to assess the legality of his or her confinement, the writ of habeas corpus has long been celebrated in Anglo-American jurisprudence as "a fundamental safeguard against unlawful custody" and "a critical check on the executive." As the writ gained strength in the decades around England’s Glorious Revolution, it helped to vanquish absolutism and lay the groundwork for the modern era’s protections of individual rights. Architects of the early American Republic regarded habeas corpus as so indispensable that they enshrined it in the Constitution, before the Bill of Rights, and set an exceedingly high bar to its suspension, only "when in cases of rebellion or invasion the public safety may require it." Hailed by William Blackstone as a "stable bulwark of our liberties," the writ has figured prominently, if inconsistently, in protecting disfavored minorities and mitigating repression throughout the common-law world. In the legendary Somersett case of 1772, a habeas petition led to the abolition of slavery in England, though not yet its colonies. In 2004 the Supreme Court ruled in Hamdi v. Rumsfeld that the Bush administration’s indefinite detention of suspected terrorists who are US citizens without judicial review was constitutionally indefensible. Even during the "most challenging and uncertain moments," the majority held, "the Great Writ of habeas corpus" remains in force, allowing citizens, aliens and even designated enemy combatants to challenge involuntary confinement and demand "due process of law."