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Wilbert Rideau is finally free . . .
Hallelujah! After 44 years one of America’s most famous convicts, a black man named Wilbert Rideau convicted of murdering a white woman in Louisiana during the Jim Crow era, is free. Headlines worldwide proclaim justice has been done. But they couldn’t be more wrong. Justice is weeping. For Rideau remains what he was when I knew him 17 years ago – a cold-blooded murderer.
Three different juries convicted Rideau, now 62, of murder. But all were overturned on technicalities, providing Rideau an incredible fourth chance. This time he was convicted only of manslaughter, downgrading his sentence to a maximum of 21 years and thereby freeing him. But here are the uncontested facts of the case.
In 1961 Rideau robbed a Lake Charles, Louisiana bank using a gun he’d purchased the day before along with a buck knife. He ordered three employees into his car and drove them to a bayou. There he emptied his gun into them at point blank range, hitting two in the neck and a third in the arm. One escaped into the water; one feigned death. The third, Julia Ferguson, made the mistake (according to the others) of begging for her life. Rideau drew his knife and plunged it into her heart, killing her.
You’ll note that I didn’t call them "victims." As the frustrated prosecutor, Calcasieu Parish District Attorney Rick Bryant, told me sarcastically: "He’s the victim. The rest of us are the bad guys."
Rideau was a victim of circumstances. He didn’t plan on robbing the bank, he said. He’d bought the weapons for self-protection. He decided on the robbery at the spur of the moment after missing his bus home from work (a victim of public transportation). "I needed a new life," he explained.
Rideau was a victim of the hostages. He said he was forced to seize them because he thought police were coming. Then he had to shoot them because they had the audacity to attempt to escape. "I didn’t intend to harm any of those people," Rideau said during cross-examination. Bryant asked him incredulously: "What did you think would happen when you stabbed a middle aged woman in the chest?"
Rideau was a victim of racism. After all, he’s black and his hostages all had the temerity to be white. (O.J. Simpson was similarly victimized.) "This jury," Rideau told the Washington Post, "reached back and pulled a judgment out of the racial clutches I was long in."
Rideau was a victim of his youth. "I was 19 years old," he said at trial. "It was ill-conceived. It was dumb."
. . . but Linda Ferguson is just as dead.
Rideau was a victim of the media. He confessed to the brutal murder during an interview broadcast by a local network, but told the 2005 jury his confession was coerced because: "I had never seen a television camera before. All I saw were bright lights and shadowy figures." Poor Rideau. "I thought this must be the electric chair I’d heard about. I thought they were going to execute me."
Is your jaw scraping the ground yet? Mine did in 1988. I was working on the AIDS project at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Rideau had written widely on prison life, so I enlisted his help in understanding the AIDS prison problem. Soon he asked if I would I join the growing throng of do-gooders trying to free him.
But in his material I saw the same ridiculous lies and woe-is-me attitude you’ve seen here. I had no trouble turning him down and felt sick I had ever been friendly with him.
But he suckered the jury, in part because 13 witnesses were dead. "He would say things that no one could refute such as that the sheriff said he’d hang him, but the sheriff is dead," said Bryant.
Another huge plus was that he was a celebrated jailhouse journalist and documentary maker. He’s received numerous major journalism awards and Life magazine in 1993 declared him "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America," as if talent can compensate for a dark soul.
And naturally there was the race card. Rideau invoked it, his lawyer invoked it, the NAACP and Johnnie Cochrane joined his defense team, and a group of 50 black ministers filed a "friend of the court" brief on Rideau’s behalf.
But all that matters now is that a vicious murderer originally sentenced to death has sent the scales of justice spinning. While Linda Ferguson lies dead, book and movie agents are knocking down the door of poor victimized Wilbert Rideau.