After 44 years in jail, killer is tried for the same crime a fourth time

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The Independent US

How many times must Wilbert Rideau be charged with the same crime? The 62-year-old model prisoner went on trial this week for the fourth time over the killing of a young woman more than 40 years ago.

How many times must Wilbert Rideau be charged with the same crime? The 62-year-old model prisoner went on trial this week for the fourth time over the killing of a young woman more than 40 years ago.

While most prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment in Louisiana could expect to be released after ten and a half years, Rideau has already spent 44 years in jail. Rideau told The Independent on Sunday in a recent interview: "You are talking about an area that harbours a good deal of prejudice, where all the players in the judicial system, the judges and everyone else, they all know the prosecution witness and what not and are all friends. They are trying to send me back to prison - they are not trying to help me."

Rideau's crime dates from February 1961 when he was 19. Having robbed a bank in the small town of Lake Charles he took three bank employees hostage and drove them to a remote bayou before shooting them. The bank manager was hit in the arm but managed to flee, another woman was shot in the neck but lay still feigning death. Rideau stabbed the third, Julia Ferguson, in the heart and then slit her throat.

Rideau has never denied killing Ms Ferguson but his defence lawyers argue his behaviour was the act of a rash teenager caught up in a robbery that had gone wrong rather than those of the reformed adult he is now. When the case opened for the fourth time in Lake Charles on Monday, his lawyers urged the jury to convict him of manslaughter, not murder.

"Let me tell you right now," one of Rideau's lawyers, George Kendall, admitted to the jury. "Mr Rideau is responsible for the death of Julia Ferguson." But, he added: "You will see these are not the acts of a well-conceived plan to eliminate witnesses but the impulsive acts of a nervous and confused man."

Rideau was tried in 1961, 1964 and 1970 and on each occasion he was convicted of murder. On each occasion an appeals court threw out the verdicts citing misconduct by the government.

Many of his defenders claim he would have been released years ago if his victim had been black and if he had not become such a high-profile prisoner. Race certainly plays a role in the case, which continues to divide Lake Charles.

The Rev J L Franklin, a black pastor and community leader who attended the opening of the case this week, said: "The city is waiting to explode. It's a time bomb waiting to blow."

Prosecutors admit they face difficulties obtaining a conviction in a case where many details have been lost to time. So many people associated with it have either died or are too unwell to appear - among them the bank manager, Jay Hickman, who died in 1988 - that 13 witnesses will have their testimony from the 1970 trial read to the court. The prosecution recruited a local radio station presenter to read Mr Hickman's testimony.

The prosecution is no longer seeking the death penalty but it wants to ensure Rideau does not leave prison alive. Rick Bryant, the Calcasieu County district attorney, told the jury: "[Rideau] took [the hostages] 10 miles east of Lake Charles ... lined them up and shot them. Julia Ferguson, who was already shot, begged - begged - for her life."

Why the prosecution has decided to bring the case more than 30 years after Rideau was last convicted is unclear. Some white members of the community believe he should have been executed years ago. His supporters believe his high profile - he has edited the Angola prison newspaper, The Angolite, for many years and has won numerous awards for his writing and documentary-making - has angered some.

In the interview, Rideau said: "Am I a victim of my own success? I don't know. It did put me in the spotlight. While a lot of people celebrated my efforts to do good - blacks and whites - some people didn't like it. And this country is meant to celebrate success. What can I say?"

FIVE DECADES IN THE DOCK

* 1961: Wilbert Rideau, then 19, convicted by the first of three all-white, all-male juries and sentenced to death.

* 1963: Rideau appeals successfully to the Supreme Court for a retrial.

* 1964: Second trial in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Jury deliberates for 15 minutes before deciding to send him to the electric chair.

* 1969: Federal appeals court overturns conviction on grounds that the jury was packed with death penalty proponents.

* 1970: Third trial in Baton Rouge. Jury takes eight minutes to give Rideau the death penalty. His appeals were unsuccessful.

* 1972: Supreme Court declares the death penalty "unconstitutional". Rideau's death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

* 1975: Rideau becomes editor of prison magazine The Angolite, which subsequently becomes a seven-time finalist for US National Magazine Award.

* 1993: Life magazine declares Rideau "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America".

* 1998: A documentary co-directed by Rideau gets an Oscar nomination.

* 2000: The US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans throws out the 1961 indictment and murder conviction, noting that five white jury commissioners used race-coded cards to pick the jury pool.

* 2005: Rideau goes on trial once more in Lake Charles, Louisiana.

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