Wilbert Rideau

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Wilbert Rideau
Born (1942-02-13) February 13, 1942 (age 74)

Wilbert Rideau (born February 13, 1942) is a convicted killer and former death row inmate in Louisiana, as well as an author and award-winning prison journalist. Rideau was initially convicted of murder and served time in the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola). He was released in 2005 after being retried and convicted of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

A Life magazine article in March 1993 referred to Rideau as "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America."[1] While in prison, Rideau edited a prison magazine called The Angolite. He has also written several books and compilations.


When he was six, Rideau's family moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana (a city about 30 miles from the Texas border on Interstate 10). He attended the all-black Second Ward Elementary School. He transferred to W.O. Boston Colored High School when he was in eighth grade and soon started skipping class attendance. At 13, Rideau got a job at a grocery store and eventually stopped going to school. He had just turned 19 when he committed the bank robbery and killing[2][3] that would take him to Angola penitentiary for more than four decades.


Louisiana State Penitentiary, where Rideau was incarcerated

Rideau was incarcerated in Louisiana State Penitentiary (better known as Angola Prison) from 1961 to 2000, convicted in three successive trials by juries of murdering bank teller Julia Ferguson in the aftermath of a bank robbery. A fourth trial in 2005, before a mixed-race jury of ten women and two men, resulted in a conviction of manslaughter, for which he was sentenced to 21 years. Since he had already served nearly 44 years for the bank robbery and killing, he was freed immediately.[4]

Legal history of the case[edit]

Rideau’s criminal case is widely studied[citation needed] in law schools for the landmark decision made by the United States Supreme Court concerning pretrial publicity.[5] The Court overturned Rideau’s 1961 conviction because the local television station, together with local law enforcement officials, filmed an “interview” with the teenaged Rideau and repeatedly broadcast it, resulting in what the Court called “Kangaroo Court proceedings.” Rideau was retried in 1964 and 1970; each of those convictions was also overturned because of constitutional violations. He won a new trial after 40 years incarceration because people of color were excluded from the 1961 grand jury that indicted him on the murder charges.[6]

Rideau’s trials and convictions split the Lake Charles, Louisiana, community along racial lines for four decades, even to the fourth and final trial in 2005, when white spectators sat behind the prosecutor’s table and those seated behind the defense were primarily black.[7][8]

Rideau had always admitted robbing the bank, fleeing with the employees, and killing one of them. The final trial pitted the prosecution’s 40-year-old version of events, which held that Rideau lined up his victims before shooting them and that Ferguson begged for her life, against the defense’s contention that Rideau reacted impulsively - first, when a phone call interrupted the robbery, and then when employee turned hostage Dora McCain jumped from the get-away car and ran and the other two employees followed suit, and that the killing was done in panic rather than premeditatively. The defense successfully challenged elements in the prosecution’s version to the satisfaction of the jury.[7][9]

Rideau spent 12 years on death row for killing Ferguson until the U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1972 Furman v. Georgia[10] ruling, abolished the death penalty as it was then applied. Rideau, like all other condemned in Louisiana, had his sentence judicially amended to life imprisonment for the crimes by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Prison journalism[edit]

In the early 1970s, Rideau wrote a column, "The Jungle", for a chain of black weeklies in Louisiana.[11][page needed] He freelanced articles to mainstream media, including the Shreveport Journal[12] and Penthouse.[13] A headline referred to him as the "The Wordman of Angola", saying "Rideau is Angola Penitentiary's Birdman of Alcatraz. He is a prisoner who has transformed the dark, drab, terror-filled life of prison into a greenhouse for the flowering of his talent."[14] He had not gone beyond the ninth grade in his formal education before his arrest and incarceration.[15]

In 1975, a federal court ordered the Angola prison to be reformed, and the outgoing warden appointed Rideau editor of The Angolite. The incoming warden ratified the choice and, with a handshake, gave Rideau freedom from censorship and thus created the nation’s only uncensored prison publication.[16] Rideau became well known during the 25 years he was an editor of The Angolite. He became the first African American prison newspaper editor in the United States.[17]

In 1979, Rideau and co-editor Billy Sinclair won the George Polk Award for the articles "The Other Side of Murder" and "Prison: The Sexual Jungle".[15][18][19] In addition, the magazine won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award,[19] and a 1981 Sidney Hillman Award.[20] The Angolite was the first prison publication ever to be nominated for a National Magazine Award, for which it was nominated seven times.[21] Rideau traveled the state as a lecturer accompanied only by an unarmed guard and was permitted to fly to Washington, D.C. twice to address the nation's newspaper editors on the subject of prison journalism.[22][clarification needed]

Rideau and co-editor Wikberg were named “Person of the Week” for their journalism on Peter Jennings's World News Tonight in August 1992.[23]

Books and compilations[edit]

Rideau wrote In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance, recalling his experiences in Angola.[24] It won the 2011 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Rideau edited "The Wall Is Strong: Corrections in Louisiana," a University of Southwestern Louisiana composition of magazine and newspaper articles and papers from the Center for Criminal Justice Research of the university. About half of the book's articles originated from The Angolite.[25] Rideau composed the book with former Angolite associate-editor Ron Wikberg and University of Louisiana at Lafayette Professor Burk Foster. It is still in use today in Louisiana.[citation needed]

Rideau and Wikberg also collaborated on Life Sentences, a 1992 anthology of articles from The Angolite, now out of print.[26] It was published in 1992 by Times Books, a subsidiary of Random House.[24]

Other works[edit]

In the 1990s, Rideau branched out into radio, television, and documentary film making, becoming a correspondent for National Public Radio, producing a segment for ABC-TV’s newsmagazine Day One; pairing up with radio documentarian Dave Isay for “Tossing Away the Keys,” and helping to create and produce two films, Final Judgment: The Execution of Antonio James and The Farm, which was nominated for an Academy Award.[27]

Clemency efforts[edit]

Mother Jones stated "a mix of racial politics and tough-on-crime posturing blocked [Rideau's] release for more than three decades" even though several LSP wardens said that Rideau was completely rehabilitated.[28] Rideau remained incarcerated by the mid-1990s, while other inmates with similar sentences had been paroled. An investigation by 20/20 uncovered statements by Governor of Louisiana Edwin Edwards; Edwards said that he believed that Rideau was rehabilitated, but he said that he would not release Rideau under any circumstances.[29] Rideau said that governors did not advocate for his release because he became "a political football" and that it would be difficult for a prisoner in that state to be released from prison."[28]

Release and post-release[edit]

In December 2000, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans threw out Rideau’s 1970 murder conviction based on grounds of racial discrimination in the grand jury process in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. To the surprise of many outside of the area, the Calcasieu Parish prosecutor decided to try Rideau for a fourth time. Rideau was re-indicted in July 2001, and was freed in 2005 after a jury verdict where Rideau was found guilty of manslaughter. Whereas he had been represented by local court-appointed attorneys in his first three trials, his defense team in 2005 included criminal defense icon Johnnie Cochran, nationally renowned civil rights attorney George Kendall, and famed New Orleans defense attorney Julian Murray, who all worked on the case for free.

As with every American trial, this one was prosecuted under the laws in effect at the time of the crime in 1961. The jury was free to convict Rideau of murder – the state elected to prosecute under the “specific intent” rather than the “felony murder” doctrine of the 1961 statute – or manslaughter, which in Louisiana is any homicide that would otherwise be murder if it is either committed without specific intent to harm an individual, or if it is committed in the heat of passion such as the panic the defense argued Rideau was in.[30]

Shortly after Rideau’s release, Judge David Ritchie, who had declared Rideau indigent at trial, ordered him to pay over $127,000 to the court to cover the cost of the trial and conviction that ultimately freed him based on prison time already served. This order was overturned by the Louisiana Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.[31] The Louisiana Court of Appeals stated:

[ . . . ] we find the trial court lacked legal authority to act for the parish of Calcasieu and lacked standing in its own right to seek recoupment of funds expended from the Criminal Court Fund. The trial court, however, retains authority to enforce the January 15, 2005 sentence which ordered Rideau to pay costs and to assess reasonable costs upon presentment by the parties who actually "incurred" the Article 887(A) expenses, consistent with this opinion and the Constitutions of Louisiana and the United States. We also vacate that portion of the March 15, 2005 Order directing Rideau to reimburse the IDB [Indigent Defender's Board] for all costs, expert witness fees and expenses associated with his defense.[32]

Rideau was one of the speakers at the 2011 Newark Peace Education Summit in Newark, New Jersey.[33]


  1. ^ Browne, Ray Broadus. Profiles of Popular Culture: A Reader. Popular Press, 2005. 297. Retrieved on October 19, 2010. ISBN 0-87972-869-8, ISBN 978-0-87972-869-4
  2. ^ http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-3445_162-6433894.html
  3. ^ http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14560-2005Jan16.html
  4. ^ Gold, Scott. "After 44 Years, Louisiana Man Is Freed." Los Angeles Times. January 17, 2005. Retrieved on August 29, 2010.
  5. ^ Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 723 (1963).
  6. ^ Adam Nossiter, “Louisiana Prison Journalist Found Guilty of Manslaughter, Set Free After Nearly 44 Years,” Associated Press, January 16, 2005
  7. ^ a b Kim Cobb, “Jury Verdict to Free Prison Journalist. Manslaughter Conviction Means He’ll Walk After 44 Years Behind Bars,” Houston Chronicle, January 16, 2005
  8. ^ Michael Perlstein, “Rideau’s fourth murder trial opens, 44-year-old case again before jury,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 11, 2005.
  9. ^ Adam Nossiter, “Race and Rideau: Using History in the Courtroom,” Associated Press, January 23, 2005
  10. ^ 408 U.S. 238 (1972).
  11. ^ Colt, George Howe. “The Most Rehabilitated Prisoner in America,” Life, March 1993.
  12. ^ Three Shreveport Journal articles. "Angola: Louisiana's Sore That Won't Heal," and "Imprisonment: Steel, Concrete Jungle," and "Veterans in Prison are Nation's Orphans," all July 2, 1975
  13. ^ "Veterans Incarcerated," Penthouse Magazine. April 1976.
  14. ^ Ott, Dwight. "The Wordman of Angola: Stranded in 'The Jungle,' He Writes..." October 5, 1975, Section One, Page Two.
  15. ^ a b "Press: Jail Journal." TIME. Monday March 10, 1980. Retrieved on February 19, 2011.
  16. ^ George Colt, “The Most Rehabilitated Prisoner in America,” Life, March 1993.
  17. ^ Garner, Dwight. "One Man’s Hard Road, From Existing to Living." The New York Times. May 4, 2010. Retrieved on October 28, 2010.
  18. ^ Crider, Billy. "Prison Success Story." Associated Press at The Evening Independent. Friday March 7, 1980. 3A. Retrieved from Google Books (3 of 58) on October 27, 2010.
  19. ^ a b "U.S. APPEALS COURT THROWS OUT 1961 CONVICTION OF KILLER WHO BECAME A JOURNALIST IN PRISON." Associated Press at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. December 23, 2000. News 17. Retrieved on October 27, 2010. "Under Rideau and Billy Wayne Sinclair, who became co-editor in 1978, the magazine won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the American Bar[...]"
  20. ^ Associated Press, "Angola's inmate magazine wins Sidney Hillman award," in Morning Advocate (Baton Rouge), May 5, 1982, 4-B
  21. ^ George Colt, “The Most Rehabilitated Prisoner in America,” Life, March 1993, pp 69-76.
  22. ^ “Why Not Wilbert Rideau?” ABC-TV “20/20” April 14, 1989.
  23. ^ "La. inmate editor, ex-prisoner featured on ABC news segment
  24. ^ a b "Books." Wilbert Rideau Official Website. Retrieved on February 19, 2011.
  25. ^ Foster, Mary. "Prison Journalists Clash Over Who Wrote What." Associated Press at the Los Angeles Times. January 7, 1990. Retrieved on November 12, 2010.
  26. ^ Rob Walker, "Portrait of a Prison: Solid reporting from inside an institution," The Dallas Morning News, Aug. 16, 1992, 8-J.
  27. ^ : See Amy Bach, “Unforgiven,” The Nation, January 21, 2002; James Minton, “Angola inmate journalist now radio correspondent,” Baton Rouge Advocate, November 13, 1994; James Minton, “Two Angola inmates win top TV award,” Baton Rouge Advocate, July 1, 1995; James Minton, Baton Rouge Advocate, August 10, 1996.
  28. ^ a b "Inside Man: An Interview with Wilbert Rideau." Mother Jones. Retrieved on October 27, 2010.
  29. ^ "Doing Time, And Doing Good, In La.'s Angola Prison." National Public Radio. April 26, 2010. Retrieved on October 27, 2010.
  30. ^ See Louisiana Revised Statutes in effect in 1961: R.S. 14:31.
  31. ^ “Wilbert Rideau Freed from Financial Prison,” The Defender (NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.) Winter 2008; “$127,000 in Fees are Voided for Former Prison Journalist,” The New York Times, November 6, 2006. :See also Sara Catania, “Freedom = Silence,” Mother Jones, September/October 2005.
  32. ^ State v. Rideau, 943 So. 2d 559 (La. Ct. App. 3d Cir. 2006) (italics in original).
  33. ^ "Speakers." 2011 Newark Peace Education Summit. Retrieved on February 19, 2011.

External links[edit]