On August 21 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, a struggling oil-refinery town on the Texas border, Wilbert Rideau walked to the center of the modern courtroom, hobbled by shackles. The man Life magazine called "the most rehabilitated man in America" lifted up his furrowed brow and looked at the judge. And stillness came over the crowd of mostly elderly blacks, as Rideau pleaded not guilty to a murder committed forty years ago.
Interest in the case lies not in Rideau's innocence or guilt. On numerous occasions he has accepted responsibility for murdering a woman after robbing a bank in 1961. Rideau, 59, received the death penalty, but by an accident of history, lived to become a famous journalist. As editor of a prison magazine called The Angolite, he has won almost every journalistic award and become a national expert on prison life; he's been "Person of the Week" on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings and a pundit on Nightline--all from behind prison bars in Angola, Louisiana. In 1994 Rideau's lawyers, in a last-ditch effort to free him, filed a habeas corpus petition in federal court. In December 2000 the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans found that the original prosecutor of the case had excluded blacks from the grand jury in blatant violation of the Constitution, and ruled that the state must retry Rideau or release him.
This year Rideau is set to stand trial in the same Louisiana town where he was first convicted forty years ago. Many thought that Lake Charles and Calcasieu Parish would look the other way rather than reprosecute an age-old case with lost evidence and a manifestly rehabilitated defendant. Rideau's lawyers have said he would settle by pleading guilty to manslaughter and walk away with more time served than all but four convicted murderers in Louisiana history. But the state won't offer any deal.
The reason can be found in Lake Charles, a town where redemption may not be possible when a black man kills a white woman. Powerful people in the parish have blocked Rideau's release, whereas other inmates sentenced for similar crimes have received parole. During Rideau's time in Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, nearly 700 convicted murderers have been freed. Four pardon boards have recommended Rideau for release--but two governors have denied clemency. "Why Not Wilbert Rideau?" was the title of a 20/20 segment exploring why he has not been able to get parole. "I think he is a con artist," said District Attorney Rick Bryant. "He's a master manipulator of the media and people who have supported him."
The vehemence stems in part from the fact that Rideau is a prosecutor's nightmare. This is the fourth time the parish has tried him. Each time Rideau is convicted, he appeals and exposes shameful structural flaws in how the justice system here really works. And he's doing it again. This past November 29 the Louisiana Supreme Court struck down the parish's process for selecting judges in capital cases, which the court faulted for allowing judge-picking, a practice used by prosecutors to obtain judges favorable to the state. The prosecution had filed its new case against Rideau when the only ball left in the bingolike hopper was the one for Michael Canaday, a white judge who had never before tried a felony. After watching Judge Canaday in court, Marjorie Ross, 68, a retired department store salesperson, said, "I look back forty years ago and things haven't changed. It's because of this." She pointed to her dark-skinned face.
But the new judge, selected "at random" with all seven balls in the hopper, happens to be one Wilford Carter, who is black and was elected from a black district with many voters fixated on this case. It's a boon that has become Rideau's signature--the grace of luck appears just when it seems to have run out. "The fact that I excelled beyond anybody's wildest expectations not only vindicated official decisions but increased the hostility of my enemies," Rideau said in a series of telephone interviews. "Everything I became, everything I have achieved, has been in spite of this unholy force from Lake Charles dedicated to destroying me and denying me the ability to be anything more than the criminal they wanted me to be."
His crime has been hard for the town to forget. According to the original prosecutor, Frank Salter, on February 16, 1961, Wilbert Rideau, then 19, knocked on the door of the Gulf National Bank at closing time. Bank manager Jay Hickman unlocked the door. He knew Rideau as the errand runner at Halperin's, the sewing shop next door, who would fetch sodas for bank employees, until the relationship became too friendly for the whites. "We stopped [asking him for sodas] because he started talking," said victim Dora McCain in her trial testimony, "calling us by our first names. So we just--we just got a refrigerator for the bank." That day, Rideau produced a gun and demanded that Hickman empty the money drawer. Rideau put $14,000 in a gray suitcase (leaving $30,000 on the floor and in coffers) and forced Hickman and two women bank tellers into a car. They drove to a country road in a wooded area, where Rideau lined up his three hostages and began firing. One bullet landed in Jay Hickman's arm. Hickman rolled off into a bayou out of sight. The two women fell to the ground with gunshot wounds. Julia Ferguson, 49, cried out, "Think of my poor old daddy," who lived with her. "Don't worry, it will be quick and cool," Rideau allegedly said before slitting her throat and stabbing her in the heart. Ferguson died at the scene. Rideau approached the other teller, Dora McCain, a pretty twentysomething with a well-known family, who lay face down. He kicked her in the side three times to see if she was dead. When she didn't cry out, Rideau took the car and left. Two state troopers stopped Rideau in his car as he was leaving town. They found the suitcase with the money in the back seat. (Rideau's counsel declined to comment on the facts before trial.)
That year, the first of three all-white, all-male juries convicted Rideau and sentenced him to death. Rideau appealed on grounds that a TV station, KPLC-TV, had secretly filmed the sheriff posing questions to Rideau, who had no access to a lawyer, and aired his mumbled answers as a confession. The US Supreme Court slammed the parish's "kangaroo court proceedings" and found that the broadcast had unfairly prejudiced the jury pool. The Court reversed the conviction and said Rideau could not be tried anywhere within the reach of KPLC. In 1964 at a second trial, in Baton Rouge, the jury deliberated for fifteen minutes before deciding to give him the electric chair. Rideau appealed again, and a federal court overturned his conviction on grounds that the state court had rejected jurors with doubts about the death penalty, in effect stacking the jury with death penalty proponents--a violation of due process. In 1970 at a third trial, in Baton Rouge, the jury took eight minutes to give Rideau the death penalty. His appeals were unsuccessful, and he returned to death row--just in time to benefit from Furman v. Georgia, the 1972 Supreme Court decision that temporarily found the death penalty unconstitutional. As a result, every death-row inmate in America, including Rideau, had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.