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Unforgiven 

This year, Wilbert Rideau faces his fourth trial for a 1961 robbery-murder. Will he finally get his chance to prove he's 'the most rehabilitated man in America'?

Wilbert Rideau, 59, Louisiana's most famous prisoner, has promised to leave the state if he is ever released. He is serving a life sentence at Angola for a murder committed during a 1961 bank robbery in Lake Charles.

Rideau is the editor of The Angolite, a national award-winning newsmagazine at Angola. Under Rideau and convicted murderer Billy Wayne Sinclair, who became co-editor in 1978, the magazine won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award. They won the George Polk Award in 1979 for courage in journalism for articles about homosexual rape and enslavement and a killing in prison.

Rideau co-authored two books on prisons with the late Angolite co-editor Ron Wikberg (Life Sentences: Rage and Survival Behind Bars, 1992 and The Wall is Strong: Corrections in Louisiana, co-edited with UL-Lafayette criminal justice professor Burk Foster, 1991). Rideau also co-directed The Farm, a 1998 Oscar-nominated documentary.

He has expressed remorse for his crimes and asks to be freed as "the most rehabilitated man in America," as Life magazine named him in 1993.

Supporters of his bid for freedom range from former prison wardens to leftist icon Angela Davis. Opponents include Louisiana governors, present and former Calcasieu Parish officials, and a hostage from the bank he robbed.

An articulate advocate for prison reform, Rideau has written eloquently on crime and punishment for Time magazine and National Public Radio, among other media. In a 1994 essay for Time magazine, he once wrote: "Prison has a role in public safety but it is not a cure-all. Its value is limited, and its use should also be limited to what it does best: isolating young criminals long enough to give them a chance to grow up and get a grip on their impulses. ...

"Prisoners kept too long tend to embrace the criminal culture, its distorted values and beliefs; they have little choice -- prison is their life.

"There are some prisoners who cannot be returned to society -- serial killers, serial rapists, professional hit men and the like -- but monsters who need to die in prison are rare exceptions in the prison landscape."

An astute observer of political trends, Rideau also challenges commonly accepted beliefs about the criminal justice system. In a 1999 edition of The Angolite, Rideau attacked the notion of "deterrence," after former Angola Warden C. Murray Henderson, 78, was convicted for the 1997 attempted murder of his wife Anne Butler, with whom he wrote such books as Angola: A Half Century of Rage & Reform.

"Deterrence, the notion of punishing a few to scare many, is a myth with universal appeal," Rideau wrote. "They bring kids every day to tour the Louisiana State Penitentiary ... hoping they'll be so intimidated by what they see and hear (They even ask us to 'scare the shit out of them.') that they'll be terrified of breaking society's laws and risk going to prison.

"While that rationale makes perfect sense to rational people, it doesn't apply to criminal behavior which, by definition, is committed by individuals undeterred by the threat of severe punishment no matter how high the ante is raised. ... The only effects of hiking the ante are to make being a crime victim more hazardous and to overpopulate prisons."

Rideau himself has been locked up for 40 years. This year, he is receiving a new trial. Due to this pending trial, he would not be interviewed for this story.

Calcasieu Parish District Attorney Rick Bryant, who said recently he would seek a life sentence -- not the death penalty -- against Rideau, has said his crimes are still fresh in the minds of many Lake Charles residents.

"It is amazing how many people to this day can tell you where they were when this happened," Bryant told reporters after a federal appeals court recently ordered a new trial. "It's kind of like JFK."

In Lake Charles, Rideau's hometown, the brutality of Rideau's 40-year-old crimes overshadow his achievements as a model prisoner and journalist. On the evening of Feb. 16, 1961, Rideau walked into the city's Gulf National Bank. He was 19, an eighth-grade dropout employed as a janitor at a nearby fabric shop in the Southgate strip mall. He was armed with a .22 caliber pistol, a hunting knife and a suitcase.

He confronted three bank employees: Julia Ferguson, Jay Hickman and Dora McCain. All three workers knew Rideau; Ferguson knew him since he was a child. Rideau ordered Hickman, the bank manager, to fill up the suitcase with money. He complied.

Rideau ordered the three outside the bank into Ferguson's van. He took the hostages to English Bayou near Cloe, some 20 miles outside of the city. All three hostages were ordered out of the vehicle. He shot them all, execution-style.

Shot in the arm, Hickman fell into the cold bayou but got away. Shot in the neck, McCain played dead.

Julia Ferguson begged for her life, asking Rideau who would take care of her father if she died. Rideau's reply, according to McCain's testimony: "Don't worry. It'll be cool and quick." He then stabbed Ferguson in the heart and slit her throat with the 10-inch hunting knife. He kicked McCain three times in the ribs. He then left them all to die, though Hickman and McCain would live to testify against him. (Hickman would die several years later, leaving McCain as the lone surviving hostage.)

Rideau escaped in Ferguson's van. He was pulled over a short time later by State Police. Inside the van was the suitcase containing $14,000 in cash taken in the bank robbery.

"I remember being scared," Rideau recalled in The New York Times Magazine in a 1980 interview. "I remember -- cutting the woman."

On the night of Rideau's arrest, he made detailed confessions to the crimes. The next morning, a film was made of Rideau, flanked by State Police, personally confessing to the crime in response to leading questions by the sheriff of Calcasieu Parish.

He got his baptism into the Louisiana media the very next morning. His filmed confession was broadcast for three consecutive days -- from Feb. 17 through Feb. 19, 1961 -- on Lake Charles television station KPLC-TV.

He was indicted for the murder of Ferguson on March 1, by a Calcasieu Parish grand jury of 20 people that included only one African American. Rideau is black; Ferguson, white. Rideau's motion to move the trial outside of Lake Charles was denied. He was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Then, a peculiar thing happened. Rideau also became a victim in the eyes of the law.

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Rideau's conviction and sentence, ruling that the sheriff's "kangaroo court" violated his constitutional right to a fair trial. The high court found the "the people of Lake Charles had been exposed repeatedly and in-depth to the spectacle" of Rideau's televised confession.

It would be the first of several court rulings favoring Rideau that reflected the "rehabilitation" of the nation, from white supremacy to racial equality, through the Civil Rights Movement.

(Twenty-two years later, Rideau's trial would surface in the deliberations for an even more infamous defendant. In 1996, attorneys for Oklahoma bombing suspect Timothy McVeigh would quote extensively from the high court's Rideau decision in seeking a change of venue, due to pre-trial publicity on his alleged confessions broadcast on the Internet. "Not since the televised live confession of Wilbert Rideau in 1961 has the right to a fair trial been so dramatically prejudiced by pre-trial publicity," McVeigh's attorneys argued.)

Rideau's second trial was moved to East Baton Rouge Parish. In a pre-trial motion, Rideau asked a state judge of the 19th Judicial District Court to quash his 1961 indictment in Lake Charles. He argued blacks were systematically excluded from the grand jury. After a hearing, the motion was denied. He was again convicted of Ferguson's murder and sentenced to death.

In 1969, a federal court vacated Rideau's conviction and death sentence, citing an U.S. Supreme Court decision that a death sentence was invalid in cases where jurors were excluded because of general objections to capital punishment. Rideau was retried in Baton Rouge. He filed the motion contesting the racial make-up of 1961 grand jury, but was again denied. He was convicted and sentenced to die.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily struck down the death penalty. The Louisiana Supreme Court annulled Rideau's capital sentence and ordered the trial court to sentence him to life in prison.

Rideau's counsel advised him that nothing further could be done for him in the courts. At that time, he did not appeal state court rejections of his argument over the racial make-up of the 1961 grand jury. In 1972, after 11 years on death row -- where he both wrote and read voraciously -- Rideau was placed in Angola's general inmate population.

Louisiana's criminal justice system still offered lifers like Rideau some hope: with a good prison conduct record, he could be considered for parole after 10 years and six months imprisonment. But the Louisiana Legislature, responding to public alarm over crime, gradually stiffened the requirement until a life sentence meant just that.

In the 1980s, Rideau got a new lawyer, New Orleans attorney Julian Murray. He revived the grand jury exclusion issue in 1994, but lost in a federal district court. Rideau appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Late last year, on Dec. 22, a three-judge panel of the Fifth -- including two judges appointed by Republican president Ronald Reagan -- agreed with Rideau's claims of racial bias in the selection of the grand jury.

A spokesman for District Attorney Bryant says jury selection for Rideau's fourth trial will likely take place in another parish, but the trial itself would be in Lake Charles -- barring any defense objections.

Rideau has gained Pardon Board recommendations for release since 1984. Surviving victim Dora McCain has reportedly testified at every trial and pardon board hearing involving Rideau's case. "I just don't see how the state can give him his freedom and add more pain to the victims," McCain told the pardon board in 1979.

A series of governors has refused to release Rideau, including Edwin Edwards, who pardoned 89 murderers before leaving office in 1996 and who is himself now a convicted felon.

After Edwards beat David Duke in a 1991 governor's race that featured "Vote for the Crook: It's Important" bumper stickers, an Atlanta Constitution reporter told Rideau that Edwards would not consider clemency for the prisoner. Rideau's reply: "How many people gave him a second chance?"

In a 1999 interview with the Associated Press, Edwards said: "The nature of the crime he committed was so unnecessary I can only believe it happened because of some mental lapse. I was just afraid if he was released to society, it might happen again." Yet in 1980, Edwards also told The New York Times Magazine, "Rideau was a black person who killed a white person. There has never been a case where a black had killed a black where there was this kind of furor over it when the criminal came up for clemency.

"It's easy to raise community feelings over Rideau. But community feelings shouldn't be given that much weight," Edwards continued. "What we need is a pardon board outside the political process so that [board] appointments won't depend on public approval. We've become too susceptible to emotional pleas from both sides."

Today, Rideau supporters say he is the only one of 31 murderers sent to Angola in 1962 who has not been freed. "If all those people were still in prison, I'd say what's happened to me is fair," Rideau told the Associated Press last year. "But they aren't. I get postcards from a former inmate who killed four people. He's out and I'm not."

James Sandifer, executive director of Common Sense Against Crime, an organization co-founded by Republican conservatives, says Rideau should die in prison. "With the crimes that he committed, and I don't care if he's rehabilitated to the point that he can be Pope, he should be at Angola until the day they carry him out in a coffin," Sandifer says.

But Prim Smith, an Episcopalian priest who as a First Assistant U.S. Attorney in New Orleans prosecuted Mafia boss Carlos Marcello in the 1950s, says Rideau has clearly been rehabilitated and should be freed.

"He seems to be an extremely special case," Smith says of Rideau. "This guy has been in there 40 years and made himself extremely useful to society. I can't imagine he would get out and start murdering someone again. As a prosecutor, I would not prosecute him. If I did it would be on a plea-basis for time served."

Jan Cater, a Lake Charles area resident, told the Associated Press in a recent interview she was 11 when she went to the funeral of her aunt, bank teller Julia Ferguson, almost 40 years ago. She said a mortician's makeup job couldn't hide the large slash on Ferguson's throat.

Cater said she's happy Rideau has done well in prison and doubts he would commit more crimes, but believes he should still be punished for the killing.

"If there were the tiniest thing, just one small shadow of doubt, then I wouldn't push this thing because my aunt wouldn't want me to," Cater said.

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