Prison Journalist's Conviction Thrown Out

A federal appeals court today threw out the murder conviction of Wilbert Rideau, saying the celebrated prison journalist was the victim of racially biased selection of the grand jury that indicted him in 1961.

The court ordered that he be set free if the state does not quickly retry him.

The prosecutor plans to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Behind Bars for Nearly 40 Years

Rideau has been held at Louisiana State Prison at Angola for nearly 40 years. In 1976 he was named editor of The Angolite and transformed it from a mimeographed newsletter into a slick bimonthly magazine that has won a string of awards.

Rideau, 58, has never denied he killed a bank teller in 1961. The black inmate argued that blacks were excluded from the predominantly white grand jury that indicted him. Today, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed.

Only one black was on the 20-member grand jury that indicted Rideau. The appeals court said blacks were excluded in violation of equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

“The state produced no evidence to rebut any portion of Rideau’s prima facie case in either the two state evidentiary hearings or the federal district court proceedings,” the appeals court said.

“Rideau’s conviction must be reversed and his unconstitutionally obtained indictment quashed,” it said.

Said Julian Murray, Rideau’s attorney: “It’s been a long time in coming, but I’m glad its finally here.”

Prosecutors Will Appeal

Calcasieu Parish District Attorney F. Wayne Frey said he couldn’t comment in detail because he didn’t have a copy of the opinion, but he did say that his office would appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola had rejected Rideau’s plea for freedom last year, saying that he had prejudiced the state’s chances in any retrial by waiting so long to appeal. By now, most of the witnesses are dead, the judges are dead, the murder weapons cannot be found and grand jury records from the time have been discarded, Polozola said.

Polozola also said there was no evidence that the grand jury list was compiled to systematically exclude blacks. The Louisiana Supreme Court also ruled, twice, that there was no such evidence.

But now, the case goes back to Polozola with instructions that the state be given a reasonable time to reindict and retry Rideau, or he must be freed.

In 1961, when he was just 19, Rideau robbed a bank and took three hostages. While they begged for their lives, he shot them. One of the victims escaped. One, shot in the neck, feigned death. The third tried to crawl away and Rideau stabbed her and slashed her throat.

‘A Chance to Try to Make Amends’

He was convicted and sentenced to death, but while waiting for his date in the electric chair, Rideau was reborn. He taught himself to read and began writing.

“I didn’t want a criminal act to be the final definition of me,” Rideau said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. “I picked up a pen and tried to do something good. It allowed me to weave meaning into what would have been a meaningless existence. It also gave me a chance to try to make amends.”

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Louisiana’s death penalty and Rideau was resentenced to life in prison.

Refused a job by the then all-white staff of the prison magazine, The Angolite, Rideau started his own publication, The Lifer, and began writing a weekly column for a group of black newspapers. In 1976, he was named editor of The Angolite and transformed it.

More recently, he gained attention for helping make a documentary about Angola, The Farm, which was nominated for an Oscar and won a prize for documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998.

Governors Refused to Pardon Him

Rideau bills himself as “The Most Rehabilitated Prisoner in America.” He has gained Pardon Board recommendations for release since 1984, but so far a series of governors have refused, including Edwin Edwards who pardoned 89 murderers before leaving office in 1996. 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 said last year. “But they aren’t. I get post cards from a former inmate who killed four people. He’s out and I’m not.”

Prison officials at Angola said Rideau would not be made available for comment today.

“We’re the keeper of the keys and we’ll do whatever the courts tell us to do,” said Cathy Jett, prison spokeswoman.