And the winner is... a convicted killer in Louisiana state pen

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WILBERT RIDEAU will not be at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles tomorrow night for the annual Oscar awards ceremony. Why would he be? The film stars might not be too comfortable with a convicted murderer in their midst.

No, Rideau will be right here at Louisiana's Angola State Penitentiary, where he has been for the last 38 years. A sprawling complex of cell blocks and razor wire on a former slave plantation covering 18,000 acres on the banks of the Mississippi, this prison gives no favours. Four-fifths of its inmates will die here, naturally or otherwise. It will, however, be allowing Rideau to watch the show on television.

Everyone at Angola has a special interest in what transpires and the 57-year-old Rideau in particular. He could be one of the winners.

Rideau, who was sentenced to life - with no chance of parole - in 1961 for robbing a bank and killing one of its female tellers with a knife, is a co-director of one of five nominated entries in the documentary category. If it wins tomorrow, it will have beaten competition from Steven Spielberg, nominated for a film about Hungarian Jews in the Holocaust.

Rideau is not as excited as you might expect. "It would not effect my existence, or my life or my imprisonment one iota," he said last week. He spoke with a tinge of bitterness - Rideau believes he has been unfairly treated by the justice system. Only five of Angola's inmates have been here longer than he has. But he hopes the film gets the Oscar because then more people would see it.

Called The Farm: Angola USA, the 100-minute film is a clear-eyed and moving examination of life inside the penitentiary. (The first slaves put to work here were from Angola.) It focuses in particular on the struggles of six of its residents. Two die before its conclusion, one from illness, the other from lethal injection. Acclaimed in Britain, where it was premiered last year on Channel Four, the work has won numerous prizes, including the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

While top billing for direction and production goes to two professional documentary makers, Liz Garbus and Jonathan Stack - who will be in the Pavilion tomorrow - Rideau rightly claims to have provided the inspiration for the film. The project sprung from a book he wrote in 1992, Life Sentences. Now in its seventh printing, it has become required reading in law schools across America.

Celebrity is not entirely new to Rideau. It has been creeping up on him since 1975, when the then Warden of Angola appointed him editor of the prison's magazine The Angolite and pledged he could print what he pleased. The result was a flow of unflinching essays on subjects such as homosexual rape behind bars and the cruelty of the electric chair. One column was enough to end electrocutions in favour of lethal injection.

Self-taught at Angola, Rideau has collected some of the most prestigious prizes in American journalism, including the George Polk Award and the Robert F Kennedy Award. He was once named Person of the Week by ABC News.

His position at The Angolite gives Rideau a standing in the prison few of his peers couldhope for, and he gets to spend his days in an office. The Angolite's premises is nothing fancy but it is his life. There are three computers and a staff of four other reporters.

Rideau explains what he perceives as the irony of his fame. He believes it has been responsible for keeping him behind bars, while every other man convicted of murder sent to Angola when he was has been freed. "None of those other people were executed and none of them served their lives in prison except me," he said. "You know why? You never heard of them. What hurt me was the first time I won an award in 1977. That's when I lost my anonymity and like a virgin that loses her virginity, it's irretrievable."

Originally sentenced to death and assigned to Angola's Death Row where he remained for 11 years until 1972, when capital punishment laws were nullified by the US Supreme Court, Rideau has had ample time to consider his fate and dissect the system that has dictated it. What has vanished from that system, he says, is the notion of second chances, of rehabilitation and of redemption.

"It used to be that the general philosophy of the justice system was to punish just enough to teach you a lesson and try to rehabilitate and improve you. That's the reason they created prisons in this country - it all had to with redemption, about giving people the chance to start again. I had these grand notions of trying to make a contribution to society, trying to do something worthwhile with my time. Well, I have no doubt in my mind I have done that. But the others have gone and I am still in here."

Rideau's words provoke easy sympathy. But there are those near Lake Charles, the scene of Rideau's rampage, who feel differently. "I wish I could transport people back in time to the date of that crime and then I'd ask, could you ever envision letting this man out of prison," the county district attorney, Rick Bryant, said recently.

According to prosecution testimony in Rideau's trials - he had three, with the first two convictions overturned because of concerns of racial bias - he took three of the bank staff hostage and drove them away in a car. Outside the city limits, he lined them up and shot them. One fell into a river and escaped, another feigned death and also survived. He chased a third, Dora McCain, and stabbed her in the neck and heart, killing her.

There is some glimmer of hope for Rideau. A hearing is scheduled for May to consider his contention that he was unfairly charged at the outset because the members of his grand jury were illegally handpicked by prosecutors and were all white. But the chances of Rideau achieving freedom soon are slim.

One of the six subjects of The Farm, Ashanti Weatherspoon, has much greater reason for optimism. Sentenced to 75 years for armed robbery, he was recently promised a parole hearing on 23 April. It came, he says, because of the impact of the film. "I believe it has helped me, because there are a number of people, very conservative people, who saw it and have become supporters of mine," Weatherspoon said. "They will be speaking up for me".