Wilbert Rideau: Cry freedom

Over the 40 years he has spent in a Louisiana jail, Wilbert Rideau has turned from convicted killer to model prisoner. Now, in an unprecedented move, he is to be tried all over again, with one aim: to ensure he never leaves jail alive, says David Usborne
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All Wilbert Rideau needed to do for four decades as an inmate in one of America's harshest prisons - the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana - was keep his head down. But that isn't his style. Instead Rideau, incarcerated in 1961 for murder, took precisely the wrong path. He turned himself into a model prisoner.

All Wilbert Rideau needed to do for four decades as an inmate in one of America's harshest prisons - the Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana - was keep his head down. But that isn't his style. Instead Rideau, incarcerated in 1961 for murder, took precisely the wrong path. He turned himself into a model prisoner.

His "mistakes" have ranged from editing the prison magazine, the Angolite, to writing books, lecturing and co-producing an Oscar-nominated film about life behind bars. In the process, he has earned some of the highest accolades in US journalism, including a George Polk award. ABC News once named him "Person of the Week". In Life magazine he was "The Most Rehabilitated Prisoner in America".

Amazing feats these may be for a man who was 19 years old and barely educated when he first went inside. But, today, Rideau, who is now 63, has the poise and glint-in-the-eye of a man with intact self-respect and admits that while his feats have earned him the admiration of people around the country, they may also have cost him the one prize every prisoner craves: freedom.

That is because there are others in the country - and especially here in south-west Louisiana - who do not care for Rideau one bit. Rather than being impressed by his deeds, they become increasingly infuriated by them. Just as his supporters say it is time to let him go, these other folk, many of them powerful, wish to see him rot and die inside his cell.

It is a battle that may soon be resolved. What is set to happen next in the long saga of Rideau's confinement is unprecedented in US judicial history. He is about to be put on trial again for the same murder, 43 years after it happened. Moreover, this will not be his second trial: it will be his fourth. It will be interesting to see if the state of Louisiana can get it right this time.

This is not a story about a black man wrongfully convicted and locked up for a crime he never committed (America has plenty of those already). True, at * the new trial in January, Rideau will plead innocent; but that is how the system works. I have spoken twice with Rideau - the first time in person behind the razor wire of Angola five years ago - and I have never heard him offer a denial of having killed. Nor will his supporters, in private, try to suggest his hands are clean of blood.

Yet, the treatment of Rideau by the judicial system in Louisiana has been deplorable. All three of his previous convictions for murder were successively overturned because of blatant racial manipulation by white prosecutors (each verdict was delivered by juries that were exclusively white and male). And on the three occasions when the state parole board recommended that he be released, between 1984 and 1990, the sitting governor flatly refused; no explanation given.

Rideau did have one piece of luck. His first 11 years in Angola - a sprawling 18,000 acre prison farm that earned its name because it was first worked by slaves from that African country - were spent on death row. When the US Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that the death penalty as it was being exercised at the time was unconstitutional, his sentence was commuted to life.

But there the luck ended. Most galling of all: back in the early 1960s when he was first convicted, the law in Louisiana said that lifers, even murderers, who showed good behaviour should be released after between 10 and 15 years. And many of his co-inmates in Angola benefited from it. Murderers walked out. Some committed murder a second time, returned to Angola and were released once more.

It is for this reason that Rideau goes to trial this time with some of the country's most eminent lawyers defending him - for no fee. They include Johnnie Cochran, who defended OJ Simpson against murder charges 10 years ago. Alongside him will be George Kendall, an advocate for equal justice for African-Americans, and Julian Murray, arguably the best-known defence lawyer in Louisiana. Their message is clear. Says Mr Murray simply: "Enough is enough."

"All he is saying is don't treat me better than anyone else," explains Mr Kendall, whose practice is in New York. "But make me pass the same test everyone else must pass to get out."

It sounds like common sense. But common sense takes second place in this case to raw emotion and racial politics. To understand that, visit Lake Charles in south-west Louisiana near the Texas line, where, on some days, the fumes from the nearby refineries burn the nostrils. This is where the murder was committed at a time when the struggle over desegregation in the South was at its fiercest. Lake Charles, in Calcasieu Parish, was KKK territory. So outraged were city officials when federal authorities ordered an end to racial segregation of the city's public schools, they vowed to close them and sell off the buildings.

The retrying of Rideau is set to take the town back to those times. With a population that is one-third black and two-thirds white, the Rideau story has remained a polarising force for all these years. Now the anger and mutual distrust will be forced back to the surface. "The city is waiting to explode. It's a time bomb waiting to blow," warns the Rev JL Franklin, a local pastor and African-American leader. Last year, he led the biggest-ever march of African-Americans in the parish to the old courthouse to demand a fair trial for Rideau. Outside the court there stands a monument to the soldiers who fought for the old Confederacy and defended slavery, with two words inscribed on it, "Our Heroes".

But the racial static was never so charged as on 16 February 1961 when the Sheriff's office in Lake Charles got word of a robbery at a bank on Ryan Street. About $14,000 was gone and the perpetrator, quickly identified as a black man, had raced away in a car with three bank employees, all of them white women. It did not take long to track them to a swampy patch of ground off an interstate highway east of the city.

The man they found there, with the three victims, was Rideau. According to prosecutors at the time - and still today - he had shot two of his hostages, wounding each. A third, a female bank teller named Julia Ferguson, was found dead, however. Rideau, the survivors said, had first shot her and then, as she attempted to crawl away, slit her throat with a knife.

On that February afternoon, Sheriff Ham Reid drove the 11 miles east of Lake Charles to take charge of Rideau from the arresting officers. As he drove back to town, a white mob had already gathered outside the police station to bay at the black teenager as he was brought in. Without delay, Rideau was interviewed by Reid and mumbled a confession in response to leading questions. All the town saw and heard it because the Sheriff had invited the local television station into the interrogation room to record it.

Four months after the robbery, Rideau was convicted and sentenced to death. The repeated television broadcasting of the "confession" tape was only one of the trial's problems. So egregious were its flaws that, two years later, the US Supreme Court reversed that first 1961 conviction, stating that the trial had been a "hollow proceeding" held in a "kangaroo court". Not only had the jury been all-white and all-male but it had also included a relative of the victim, a friend of the victim and two local deputy sheriffs.

Trial number two in 1964 was at least held outside Lake Charles, 100 miles away in Baton Rouge. Again, Rideau was convicted and sentenced to death, again by an all-white jury (it reached its verdict in eight minutes). And once again the conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court on the grounds that jury selection rules had been violated. And so, in 1970, to a third trial, also in Baton Rouge. This time the guilty verdict of the jury (all white, all male) seemed to stick, at least until 1972, the year that the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty as it was being exercised in the US was unconstitutional and should be suspended. Rideau's death sentence was automatically commuted to life.

Off death row, Rideau was able to show his self-transformation. He was helped by successive wardens, who, showing a surprising degree of accommodation, increasingly gave their most ambitious prisoner rein to express himself, including editing his own magazine. The Angolite was not subject to censorship. It chronicled the violence of Angola, the rapes and sexual slavery of inmates. Meanwhile, hundreds of school children were bussed in to listen to Rideau warn against a life * of crime. He was allowed out to lecture on prison reform at universities in the state and, occasionally, appeared on national television to address the same issues. Perhaps most surprising was how he was allowed to co-produce the film, called The Farm: Angola USA. Aside from the Oscar nomination, it won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

But through all that time, his legal manoeuvres to find his freedom came to nought. Most frustrating were the three occasions the parole board recommended his release and the then governor, Edwin Edwards, demurred. An ABC TV news report alleged some years later that Edwards had personally promised one of the survivors of the bank robbery, Dora McCain, that he would never let Rideau go free.

Four years ago, the landscape shifted again. In response to fresh motions from Rideau, a federal appeals court ruled that he should either be released or tried all over again because of the racially biased make-up of the grand jury that delivered the original murder indictment against him back in 1961. Rideau and his lawyers tried to negotiate for the former option. The man who stood in their way was the District Attorney in Lake Charles, Rick Bryant. He was having none of it. He blocked successive attempts by the Rideau team to have the new trial held either before one of its two black judges or, more preferably, for it to be moved from a jurisdiction far from Calcasieu Parish.

The jurors, at least, are to be picked this time from the city of Monroe, a good three hours' drive away in the north of the state. But to the dismay of the defence, and of Rideau himself, the trial itself will be in Lake Charles. Worse, the star witness for the prosecution will be Dora McCain, the only surviving victim of the 1961 crime. It hardly helps him that she was an assistant in the office of the Clerk of the Court for 15 years and knows almost everyone in law enforcement in town.

In a telephone interview from the Lake Charles jail, where he was transferred after a new trial was ordered, Rideau openly voiced his scepticism about his chances of a fair trial this time. "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."

The atmosphere at the trial will not be pretty. To say that there is open enmity between the two camps is an understatement. Murray, speaking in his home in New Orleans, decries the unwillingness of DA Bryant even to consider the efforts made by him and his co-defence lawyer to negotiate a settlement - probably in the form of a manslaughter plea by Rideau - that would have meant him being freed on the 43 years already served. Bryant, he surmises, just has it in for Rideau and therefore there is no moving him. "Bryant? There is a lot of hate in that man. There is just a genuine hate in there. You find that mentality in some prosecutors."

As for Bryant, he laughs out loud at the idea. In fact, talk to him about almost anything that the defence has to say and he will chuckle like they are idiots. "I get a little irritated with all these people coming on with their 'poor, pitiful Wilbert Rideau' deal. What do you want me to say? That he is a great guy?"

In fact, whether he is a great guy or not doesn't concern Bryant. Murray is infuriated that the DA, even though he has been involved in this case for nearly 20 years, has never even exchanged words with Rideau. "He has never met him. Never so much as said 'good day' and had a cup of coffee with him. Some of the things he has said about Wilbert are outlandish, like if they freed him he would commit murder again."

Bryant retorts: "Why should I spend time with him? I don't visit with prisoners. I prosecute them."

This will be the main fault line in the courthouse next month. The defence will talk a great deal about rehabilitation and redemption. Rideau, they will say, has shown more willingness to overcome his alleged sins than any prisoner you could name. "Right or wrong," Murray explains, "Christians are meant to understand the principle of forgiveness. But not in Bryant's case." Indeed not.

Bryant seems ignorant of many of the things Rideau has done while in Angola. "I don't know anything about that," he says, reclining in his swivel chair in his Lake Charles office. "Whether he is rehabilitated or not rehabilitated is irrelevant to me. Whether he has talked to school kids or whoever is a non-issue. It means absolutely nothing to me. What means something to me is that he butchered a woman to death." He adds, "There is no redemption for a murderer."

This is the attitude Rideau and his lawyers are facing. Both sides are downplaying their chances of prevailing. Bryant rightly points out the difficulties of prosecuting a murder case that is more than 40 years old with almost all the evidence gone and nearly every witness dead. Messrs Cochran, Murray and Kendall point to the ferocity of Bryant and to the history of judicial bias in Lake Charles. Their best hope is to persuade the jury to opt for manslaughter and to free Rideau on time first.

Perhaps most absurd of all is the truth that Rideau would be in a far better position now if he had not shone so brightly while in Angola. "If he had laid low and not had any achievements, he would have been released 20 years ago," insists Kendall.

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