Inmate Writer : Free Mind Trapped in Convict Body

Times Staff Writer

Wilbert Rideau stared at the television screen as the words engulfed him.

So it was happening again. The governor had said no, that his crime was too heinous, that being locked up for 27 years was not enough to pay for the murder. Wilbert Rideau had lost one more chance to leave prison behind him.

The awards and the nationwide recognition meant nothing. Neither did the unblemished prison record.


The cold hand of despair pushed against Rideau’s chest. He had been too confident this time, believing that this new governor would accept yet another recommendation of the pardon board and let him go.

‘Horrible Nature’

But then came the awful words on the evening newscast: “Given the horrible nature of this crime, the fact that both surviving victims oppose clemency and the fact that Calcasieu law enforcement officials oppose clemency, I deny Rideau’s plea for a reduced sentence.” The man who spoke them was Gov. Buddy Roemer.

In his darkest hours, Rideau has wondered whether this fame of his was really a curse, the reason all those years had drifted by at the Angola State Prison. Maybe he should never have learned to be a writer. Maybe he would have been better off if he had kept his head down and blended into the prison backdrop. There is much time to think of what might have been when a man is a lifer in prison.

Wilbert Rideau is a killer. He is a black man who murdered a white woman on a winter’s day in 1961 during a bank robbery. He is also a man who, through the printed word, has perhaps told the outside world more about prison life than any other. He is the winner of some of the most prestigious awards in American journalism, a frequent panel member on criminal justice discussions and often referred to as one of the most rehabilitated prisoners in the United States. Certainly he is one of the most visible.

Refused by Two Governors

Three times in the last four years, the state pardons board has recommended that his sentence be commuted and that he be immediately paroled. But the governor is the last hurdle in his bid for freedom and this hurdle has been impossible for him to clear. Two governors--Roemer and Edwin W. Edwards before him--have refused to free him, and no one else has the power because in this state there is no such thing as parole from a first- or second-degree murder conviction.

“If you have read Wilbert’s writing over the last 15 years, as I have, it is evident he has a free mind trapped in a convict’s body,” said C. Paul Phelps, the former secretary of the Louisiana Department of Corrections and one of Rideau’s strongest supporters.

Opponents of his release scoff at such talk, saying that a man who can kill a woman as she begs for mercy, a woman he knew, ought to be locked up forever.

“If this man committed this crime in this state today, he would be executed,” said Gov. Roemer. “I would not be comfortable accepting the pardon board’s recommendation.”

There are few who take the middle ground when it comes to Wilbert Rideau.

When it happened in 1961, Julia Ferguson’s murder and Rideau’s arrest made up one of the most sensational cases of the day. The setting was Lake Charles, a southwest Louisiana city that sits opposite a phalanx of petrochemical plants that belch smoke and fire into the air, day and night.

On Feb. 16 of that year, Rideau walked into the Southgate branch of the Gulf National Bank carrying a .22-caliber pistol, a hunting knife and a suitcase. The 19-year-old robber knew all these people, because he was a porter for Halpern’s Fabric Shop in the same mall as the bank.

Ordered at Gunpoint

Rideau ordered the branch manager, Jay Hickman, to fill the suitcase at gunpoint. That done, he forced Hickman, along with bank tellers Ferguson and Dora McCain, into a car. Rideau ordered Ferguson to drive.

If Rideau could reclaim an hour of his life, it would be this one. The robber and his hostages drove from Lake Charles to English Bayou, just north of the city. The exact circumstances of what happened then have been altered by time and many tellings. But testimony at the trials was that Rideau lined up the three and began firing the pistol he had bought the day before.

Hickman was hit in the arm and he fled into the swamp, where Rideau presumed he had drowned after searching the murky waters. McCain was shot in the neck and torso, but feigned death and endured Rideau’s kicks to her stomach. Ferguson, already shot once, rose up and the bank robber was upon her.

She was begging for her life when Rideau slashed her throat with the hunting knife. Then he stabbed her in the heart.

“Don’t worry, it will be quick and cool,” he told the woman before he killed her.

Taped Confession Broadcast

Rideau was arrested that same day. In a move that would come back to haunt him, Calcasieu Parish Sheriff “Ham” Reid allowed the local television station to secretly record his confession, one made without a lawyer present. For three nights running, Lake Charles residents watched as Rideau’s confession went out over the airwaves.

Then came the trials, three of them. The first was thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court because of the extraordinary pretrial publicity surrounding the case. The second, held in Baton Rouge, the state capital, also ended in a guilty verdict and a death sentence. But it, too, was thrown out, this time because the judge permitted the prosecution to exclude any potential jurors with doubts about the death sentence. The third of the trials finally stuck. Rideau was sentenced to be executed. He was transferred to Angola’s Death Row, where he awaited his walk to the electric chair.

Rideau can’t say when the long march back from the brink began. It may have been in the East Baton Rouge jail as he awaited trial. It may have been later. Surely it didn’t happen right away. For months, Wilbert Rideau remained a young murderer with no remorse for his deeds. And then, during those long months of solitary confinement, he said he began to think about what he had done.

“I did not have a right to do this. I didn’t have a right to hurt anybody,” he said, sitting in the parole board hearing room at the prison. “The enormity of it all began to sink in. I did a lot of thinking and I began to realize I was sorry.

‘I Owe a Lot’

“I wasn’t the hideous creature the crime implied. I knew that. I also realized I owe a lot and some that I could never pay back. The only thing that I could possibly salvage from all this was Wilbert Rideau.”

Rideau, a trim man of 46 now, was dressed in freshly pressed denim jeans, shirt and jacket. The years of good conduct had won him the right to wear civilian garb. His fingernails were neatly manicured and an unlit Camel cigarette rested between two fingers. He reflected on all those years, the lonely times on Death Row, the guards who first began to slip him books, the awakening of a mind.

Some words from his 1978 petition for clemency: “As I read, a new world opened up to me. . . . There were stories of men who had faced great challenges and won, men who had been as empty and worthless as I, who had gone on to turn their lives into works of art, became immortal, revered and respected by their fellow human beings. . . . I found hope.”

From the reading came the writing and, finally, the opportunity for a second shot at life when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972.

Rideau the condemned became Rideau the lifer. By the time he left Death Row--nine years after he entered prison--Rideau had already written two unpublished novels and a criminal justice textbook. Once off Death Row, when he wasn’t allowed to work on the prison magazine because the staff was white and he was black, he began a column called “The Lifer,” which he distributed himself within the prison. He wrote another column for five newspapers in Louisiana and Mississippi called “The Jungle.”

Prison Ruled by Violence

And then, in late 1975, Phelps became the acting warden at Angola. He had many ideas about how to tame his 18,000-acre prison, which at the time was one of the worst in the country. Inmates were being killed on an average of once a week. It was a prison ruled by violence, inhabited, as it is today, by the hardest of Louisiana’s criminals.

One of Phelps’ thoughts was about the prison magazine, “The Angolite.” He decided that for the first time, it would not be censored by prison officials, that it would be an open voice for the inmates. And he decided that Wilbert Rideau would be the next editor.

The editorship of “The Angolite” became the source of Rideau’s fame. Almost immediately, the awards started coming, first those for the penal press, then others. There was the George Polk Award, one of journalism’s most prestigious, for a detailed account of the sexual abuses that go on inside prisons.

Rape in prison, he wrote, “is not sexual and is not really regarded as ‘rape’ in the same sexual sense that society regards it. It is and means something entirely different in the world behind bars. In fact, it isn’t even referred to as ‘rape.’ In the Louisiana penal system, both prisoners and personnel generally refer to the act as ‘turning out,’ a non-sexual description that reveals the non-sexual nature of what is really an act of conquest and demasculation. . . .”

Rideau has also won the Robert F. Kennedy award and the American Bar Assn.'s Silver Gavel award twice. And with the awards have come the news stories about the rehabilitation of Wilbert Rideau and editorials calling for his release. Rideau keeps a file of movie and book offers.

Wardens spanning the last 15 years at Angola Prison support Rideau’s release. The director of the American Civil Liberties Union national prison project, Alvin Bronstein, said Rideau has already served almost double the average time for a murder conviction.

“If any person deserves to come back into society, Rideau is that person,” he said.

The Rev. James Stovall, executive director of the Louisiana Interchurch Conference, was Dora McCain’s pastor when Rideau shot her and left her for dead on the side of the road. He, too, is for the release of Rideau.

“He’s a mature, stable individual,” Stovall said. “I know him to be a brilliant writer and one who has the best understanding of what is happening in our correctional institutions than any other person in the United States.”

Phelps, the former corrections secretary, thinks that is exactly where things went wrong for Rideau, that he became too famous: “I believe that if he had not become what he is, he would have been out.”

Falls on Deaf Ears

All of this falls on deaf ears to those on the other side. They argue that Rideau shouldn’t be released from prison just because he learned to write.

Calcasieu Parish Dist. Atty. Richard Ieyoub once again brings up the common argument.

“If Mr. Rideau were tried now, he would be convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death,” he said. “I don’t think Mr. Rideau has any reason to complain.”

This is, after all, Louisiana, one of the toughest states in the nation when it comes to sentencing criminals. The average sentence for armed robbery in the United States, for instance, is 24 months. In Louisiana, the minimum sentence is five years.

On a per capita basis, only the Soviet Union and South Africa have more prisoners than those in Louisiana’s prisons and jails, according to Carl Jackson of the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice. In Louisiana, Jackson said, there are 273 people in state prison for tampering with their electric meters. Eight are in prison for stealing dogs and two more are doing time for stealing fish.

Sold Pardons to Inmates

And it is also the place where the former director of the state pardons board was arrested and pleaded guilty to selling pardons to inmates. He is now doing time in a federal prison.

It is in this atmosphere that Rideau must try to gain his freedom. Roemer, though, has pledged to be even tougher on crime.

Rideau, meanwhile, fights to keep his bitterness in check.

“In no other justice system in the United States would I still be in prison,” he said. “This could only happen in Louisiana because no other system would allow such a condition to exist.”

Linda LaBranch, an English professor at New Orleans’ Loyola University, first saw Rideau when he was on ABC’s “Nightline” being interviewed by Ted Koppel. Intrigued, she went to the library and read more about him. Then she went to visit him. She is now trying to free Rideau, working through the university’s Institute of Human Relations.

‘Willie Horton Factor’

She blames racism, contending that Rideau would have been out long ago if his victims had been black. She says Roemer refuses to pardon Rideau, but he and previous governors have pardoned murderers who have served much shorter sentences. She calls Rideau a victim of what she terms the “Willie Horton factor,” referring to the former Massachusetts prisoner who became a major issue during the presidential campaign when he killed a woman while he was on a weekend furlough.

“The presidential race showed every politician in the country what would happen if he was perceived to be soft on crime,” she said. “There is no justice here at all.”

Meanwhile, Roemer, who calls pardons one of the most difficult parts of his job as governor, says that there may someday be hope for Wilbert Rideau, but not now.

“I don’t think anyone can say never to Wilbert,” Roemer said. “It’s my opinion that at this time in this state, this man should not be released.”