But perhaps the biggest strike against Rideau is his race: No black man convicted of murdering a white person in Lake Charles has ever been released from prison, according to The Rideau Project, a research effort at Loyola University in New Orleans (see www.wilbertrideau.com). Whether or not people were alive at the time of the crime, feelings seem to be as strong as they were forty years ago. A 33-year-old white saleswoman at an electronics store, who asked not to be identified, said, "He should die the same death like everyone else," adding that she had to put her kids in private schools because of the "kids who cause trouble." She then mouthed the word "blacks." Her co-worker, a 30-year-old white man, used lynching imagery to say he agreed: "They should have swung him a long time ago." But then he asked, "What did he do?"
This is what gives District Attorney Rick Bryant his mandate. He's up for re-election in November, which means trying Rideau during campaign fundraising season. In two conversations, one at his desk and a second in a downtown bar, he said that even if Rideau were rehabilitated (and he wouldn't admit this), he would reprosecute. "He did the crime, didn't he?" Bryant refuses to recognize his own prosecutorial discretion, implying that he actually doesn't have the power to decide not to prosecute. This may be true, but only in the sense that his political survival in this majority-white town depends on a conviction. "They are trying to make me into a glorified pardon board. I am not a pardon board. I am a DA. Like I should be God of this case! Like I don't care! Or that I should decide he's a good guy in prison! That is not my job. The only reason I would not retry him is if there is no evidence, he's innocent or the victims want his release," he says. I suggest that his job is to seek justice, not just to convict, and that a retrial can only divide the town. "They line up and tell me to keep him in prison," Bryant says.
Of course, there are those--mostly black and some influential whites--lining up on the other side, too. Cliff Newman, an attorney and Democratic state senator from 1980 to 1988, once lobbied the governor to keep Rideau in prison at the behest of Dora McCain, the only victim who is still alive today. In the following years, Newman met Rideau in Angola at the prison rodeo and followed his story in the media. Today Newman has changed his mind: "From a political point of view it is not popular to ever say a murderer should be released. But I am not in politics anymore. And I am not going to be. Everyone is capable of rehabilitation."
Even conservative whites are hard pressed to argue that Rideau is not a different man today. Bill Shearman, owner of the town's conservative weekly newspaper, said, "Well, yeah, I think Rideau is rehabilitated," explaining that his view isn't representative. "Only a scant minority realized he has changed." Jim Beam, 68, a columnist of the American Press, the conservative daily that has opposed Rideau's freedom, admitted, "If you asked me if he's rehabilitated I would say yes." And Peggi Gresham, retired assistant warden and Angolite supervisor for twelve years, said, "I am not a bleeding-heart liberal. I don't think that everybody should get out. But when a person is as successful as some individuals are they can get out and have a good life. Wilbert is one of those people."
Young black professionals I met generally thought Rideau should be released because he has changed but see his plight as a remnant of past prejudice that doesn't really concern them. Rideau's real support in Lake Charles has come from the local NAACP and black press who believe that Rideau didn't commit the crime alone and is part of a larger conspiracy. "Blacks don't rob banks and they don't commit suicide," says Lawrence Morrow, publisher and editor of the black magazine Gumbeaux. Rideau had a good job, they argue, at a time when it was difficult for blacks to find jobs, and he took only $14,000, leaving $30,000 in the bank. Joshua Castille, 73, a retired black law enforcement officer, had drinks with Rideau the night before the crime and saw no peculiar behavior. He believes Rideau acted in concert with bank manager Hickman. Even back then, he said, a bank would never open its doors after closing hours. For a black person? "For anyone," he says. "They just wouldn't do it." The contrasting perceptions of the Rideau case among blacks and whites is emblematic of the different ways the two groups view crime, as well as issues like the death penalty. "Blacks are more likely to understand that people like Rideau are less likely to have committed the crime because they are monsters than because of circumstances that put them in that situation-- 'there but for their fortune go I,'" says Currie. "And they know that the criminal justice system has been pushed toward punishing blacks more than whites for as long as the justice system has existed."
Rideau's trial could go either way. On the one hand, Lake Charles elects its judges and Judge Carter is accountable to a black constituency that cares about this case enormously, which could mean openness to arguments about prosecutorial vindictiveness. On the other hand, when Carter's son, then 16, was charged with second-degree murder, he received a plea deal from Bryant reducing the charge to manslaughter--which, critics say, could predispose the judge to be friendly to the prosecution. And while, after so many years of appeals, the evidence is mostly lost, Dora McCain's lawyer, Frank Salter, the original prosecutor, said she would testify, which could mean a conviction based on her testimony alone (McCain did not respond to interview requests). Rideau's lawyer is the formidable George Kendall of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, but it isn't yet clear how Judge Carter feels about counsel who swoops in from New York.
Rideau says if he does get out, he wants to leave Louisiana and write two books. "And neither one of them is about me," he says, explaining that he hopes to redefine criminality. "But I am telling you they are going to give me the Pulitzer Prize for this." It's hardly what Lake Charles wants to hear. When does he believe punishment should stop? "Whatever it should be, it should be," he says. "But it should be equal."