After 44 Years, Louisiana Man Is Freed

Times Staff Writer

Wilbert Rideau, who became an unlikely civil rights figure in the Deep South although he never denied kidnapping three bank employees and stabbing one of them through the heart, walked out of a Louisiana prison a free man Sunday morning after spending more than 40 years behind bars.

Underscoring every other tortuous turn in the case, Rideau, 62, who is black, was released not after being exonerated, but after being found guilty one more time. After his fourth trial since a 1961 robbery, a jury in Lake Charles, La., agreed late Saturday night with Rideau's defense team that he was guilty not of murder, but of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

Because the maximum sentence for manslaughter is 21 years, he was sentenced to time already served in prison.

When the judge asked him Saturday whether he wanted to be released immediately, Rideau replied, simply: "Yes, sir."

Sunday morning, he walked out of the Calcasieu Correctional Center wearing a black sweater -- and the sad, enigmatic smile that had become familiar to his advocates as well as his detractors in Louisiana.

"I'd like to give my heartfelt apologies to the victims in the offense and to all the lives that my actions have caused suffering," he said.

Rideau's lawyers said he left immediately after his release for Baton Rouge, La., where he would stay with friends until he determined what to do next and where to live.

Rideau, who became an award-winning prison journalist, was a 19-year-old, virtually illiterate, eighth-grade dropout when he walked into the Gulf National Bank of Lake Charles in the winter of 1961 and stole $14,079.

He kidnapped three employees and made one of them drive them all to an arm of the English Bayou, where he shot teller Julia Ferguson, then stabbed her in the chest with a hunting knife.

He shot the two others and left them for dead, although they survived. The law caught him 80 minutes later, before he had made it 20 miles out of town.

"I thought I had it made," he told deputies.

Rideau was sentenced to die three times by all-male, all-white juries -- in 1961, 1964 and 1970.

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out his first conviction because he had been forced to appear on a local television news program, where he discussed the robbery and the killing, before his trial. In 1969, his second conviction was thrown out because of a legal technicality.

His 1970 conviction was commuted to life in prison when the Supreme Court nullified death penalty laws as they were written at the time.

In 2000, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his latest conviction after agreeing with his lawyers' argument that blacks had been improperly kept off the grand jury that initially indicted him. It was one of many instances when his lawyers argued that racial tension in Louisiana made a fair trial impossible.

He was indicted again in 2001 and prosecutors made a controversial decision to put him on trial a fourth time. The trial, which began this month in Lake Charles, had a racially mixed jury of men and women.

"Time and age do not give you innocence," Calcasieu Parish Dist. Atty. Rick Bryant told the jury this weekend.

The defense team took a different approach this time, arguing that Rideau had only killed after panicking and should be convicted of manslaughter.

"You have to understand that time," another of his lawyers, Julian Murray, told the jury. "You think they would hesitate to exaggerate the facts of the case, to get the result they wanted? ... He did a terrible thing. But it wasn't murder."

Defense lawyers suggested repeatedly that racism had played a role in demonizing Rideau in the early years.

They pointed, for instance, to testimony that was originally used to convict Rideau in which an ambulance driver alleged that Rideau sliced Ferguson's throat with such ferocity that he nearly severed her head.

It was a damning detail -- one that was summoned for years whenever Rideau was in court. But a forensic specialist who studied photographs of the crime testified this month that Ferguson's throat wound was superficial and might not have been the result of the crime at all. The specialist said that from all appearances, the wound was a result of a tracheotomy that doctors attempted that night.

The jury agreed Saturday night that Rideau was guilty of manslaughter.

Rideau also testified during the trial for the first time, and Ron Ware, one of his Louisiana lawyers, said that might have marked a crucial departure from the earlier trials.

Although his testimony was not considered essential to either side's case, on the witness stand he exhibited the same thoughtfulness and charisma that have distinguished him in the Louisiana penitentiary system.

In prison, Rideau taught himself to write -- after teaching himself, for the most part, to read, largely with books smuggled in for him by white prison guards. He became an acclaimed documentarian.

He wrote about criminal justice issues for a magazine called The Angolite and co-directed a prison documentary called "The Farm," which won a prize in 1998 at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Academy Award. He was featured on National Public Radio.

He also, for the last 20 years, had liberties that left other inmates aghast -- traveling frequently with a guard to do speaking engagements across Louisiana and beyond, winning over audiences at many of his stops.

"He expresses his humanity well," Ware said in an interview Sunday night, following a long and jubilant day. "There were difficult questions, and he explained them well."

Rideau became a civil rights figure not in spite of the attention his case received but because of it, said the Rev. J.L. Franklin, a Lake Charles minister and a leader of an organization that pushed for Rideau's release.

"If Wilbert could not get a fair trial having had a dream team [of lawyers], what about all the other individuals who come before this system?" Franklin said. "There is a value placed on white life here and a value placed on black life. It became very obvious to us that this was a very serious issue. And we never forgot it."

Ware said the case had long divided western Louisiana.

"The Rideau name, the Rideau issue, the Rideau case was always a theme in this community. The area was polarized along racial lines," he said. "People who had differing views were always reminded of it. It has had a presence since it happened. Maybe this will put an end to it or just put it all in its proper place. Maybe people can move on now."

Not everyone.

Rideau has been dubbed, famously, the "most rehabilitated inmate in America." His release was met with much celebration, but amid the din, one voice nearly has been drowned out.

Don Hickman, 73, is a Lake Charles man who can't quite retire from his career as a house painter because his old customers keep calling with new projects that he can't seem to turn down. When Hickman heard that Rideau had been released, he thought of the South, of his native Louisiana.

"Everything's changed," he said Sunday. "We meld now, more than we did -- the blacks and the whites and the Chicanos. We're in the same neighborhoods. The same schools."

Hickman said there was no question that the change has been for the best. But, he said: "I don't know what that has to do with murder."

Hickman's father, Jay Hickman, was the branch manager at Gulf National and was shot in the arm during the robbery. He was 55.

It was supposed to be just another night on Feb. 16, 1961, when he yelled out to the two women working out front.

"You girls close the curtains and come here," the manager yelled.

The women found him with Rideau, who was carrying a .22-caliber pistol. Hickman was putting piles of cash in a suitcase. It was Hickman who broke up Rideau's plan, perhaps by mistake, by insisting that they answer a telephone when it rang. Rideau had wanted to let it ring, but Hickman insisted.

It was a vice president of the bank, who sensed troubled.

"Do you need the police?" he asked.

"It might be a good idea," Hickman said before hanging up.

When they got to the bayou, Hickman ran from the car and was shot in the arm.

Rideau yelled for Hickman several times, and then fled. Hickman eventually saw lights -- they were from an oil services company -- and found help.

"He never talked about it much," the son said. "It's like a guy who comes back from the war.... It's something they would just rather forget."

Jay Hickman died in 1988. To this day, his son can't quite figure out how Rideau became a hero.

"I don't see how anybody in their right mind would release an admitted murderer," Don Hickman said. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard."

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