Life After Death Row

Wilbert Rideau spent 44 years in prison, much of it on Death Row, for the 1961 murder of a bank teller during a bungled robbery. During his  incarceration he rehabiliated himself into a noted journalist and author.
Wilbert Rideau spent 44 years in prison, much of it on Death Row, for the 1961 murder of a bank teller during a bungled robbery. During his incarceration he rehabiliated himself into a noted journalist and author.
Stories of crime and punishment are just about the oldest stories there are. And whether the guilty can ever truly earn redemption sometimes defies a simple answer. Erin Moriarty of "48 Hours" has such a story:

"My name is Wilbert Rideau. And I guess the best way to describe me is, I'm a very, very fortunate man."

If few people recognize Wilbert Rideau as he jogs through the streets of his neighborhood, they may soon. This week, Rideau's memoir, "In the Place of Justice," will be released.

It's likely to get people talking…

"I guess I should have been dead, and I'm alive, and I'm here to tell you about it - and I'm still amazed," he said.

At 68 years old, Rideau is an accomplished and celebrated writer. He's a journalist who has appeared on "Nightline" and reported for National Public Radio. He co-directed a documentary, "The Farm: Angola, U.S.A.," that was nominated for an Oscar.

But what makes Rideau's story worth noting is not just how far he has come, but where he began.

Wilbert Rideau was once on Death Row, condemned to die for killing a woman in 1961.

When asked how hard it was to write his memoir, he replied, "It was tough because I had to revisit all that again. I have to go all the way back to the beginning - I mean, the very beginning."

That means going back to the 1940s and '50s in the deep South, to Lake Charles, Louisiana, where Rideau grew up poor, a high school dropout.

Still, Rideau makes no excuses for what he did on the evening of February 16th, 1961. He robbed a bank.

"I chose to walk into the bank and rob it, yes," he said. "I didn't really choose for the rest to happen . . ."

In the courtroom where Wilbert Rideau was first tried almost fifty years ago, the jury - all male, all white - heard how he botched a bank robbery and then took three employees hostage. They drove to a remote spot outside of town.

"Things got out of hand. One woman jumped and, you know, she leapt out of the thing when we slowed. She leaped out of the car. And it just all went to hell."

"You shot at them? All of them?" Moriarty asked.

"Yeah. I just emptied the gun, you know, just because the rest of them was jumping out, too, and I'd lost control."

Julia Ferguson, a 46-year-old bank teller, was hit by a bullet and fell.

"In an instant she was getting up, and I grabbed the knife and stabbed her," said Rideau.

"What was going through your mind?" Moriarty asked.

"Nothing. Just sheer panic," he said. "You don't just stand there and think it out. I mean, this is all in a matter of seconds."

Rideau's entire confession was filmed by a local television station, and then aired. That pre-trial publicity would provide the grounds for a retrial, but it didn't change his fate.

"'Guilty as charged,'" Rideau recalled. "'Guilty' meant life sentence; 'guilty as charged' meant death."

Rideau was sent to Louisiana's Angola Prison, where he spent a decade waiting to be executed.

"For all practical purposes, I was born on Death Row, and I grew up on Death Row," he said.

Books were his only escape: "I started reading, and from there I just kept on reading. I read everything I could get my hands on. And the more I learned, the more I wanted to know."

He read Machiavelli . . . Ayn Rand . . .

"That's the only way I was able to survive that cell," he said.

After the Supreme Court suspended the death penalty in 1972, Rideau's death sentence was commuted to life. But while he no longer faced execution, moving into the general population at Angola had its own risks.

"It's dog-eat-dog, and the biggest son of a bitch wins," he said.

It wasn't called the bloodiest prison in America for nothing. Weaker inmates were "turned out" . . . the term for being raped and forced to become a slave.

"You're no longer defined as a male; you then become defined as a female, and you were the property of your owner, whoever raped you."

"How did you avoid being turned out?" Moriarty asked.

"When you stepped out of Death Row, nobody messed with you!" he laughed. "They left you alone."

Wilbert Rideau began writing about prison conditions.

"If you had given me paint and brush and an easel and canvas, I might have become a painter, but I didn't have any of that. All I had were a pencil, paper and books. And that's the way I learned to express myself."

He started an in-house newspaper called "The Lifer," then began to write for outside publications, including "Penthouse." Later, he became the first black editor of "The Angolite," the prison's magazine.

"I wanted to do good, I wanted to correct problems," he said. "I wanted to correct misunderstandings between inmates and employers. And I wanted the public to understand the world because perhaps then, you know, they might be more conducive to change."

In "The Sexual Jungle," Rideau described in graphic detail the rapes and violence in prison.

"Conversations with the Dead" was the story of inmates all but lost in the system, still trapped behind bars even though they'd done their time.

"That got a lot of guys released, or a certain number of deserving prisoners released," he said.

And for the first time, Rideau published horrific photographs of burns caused by a defective electric chair - a factor in prompting the state of Louisiana to instead execute all Death Row inmates by lethal injection after capital punishment had been reinstated.

"There are a lot of stories had impact, yes," Rideau said. "Changed things, did things for people and helped people, and changed the way they did things in prison - and even got some laws changed."

As his work became recognized and won awards, Rideau found himself in demand as a speaker. He was allowed to leave prison to give speeches and appear on television.

One night Linda LaBranche, a Shakespearean scholar at Northwestern University in Chicago was watching: :And I listened to him, and it sort of shattered all of my preconceptions about who was in prison."

LaBranche became part of a growing number of people supporting Rideau in his effort to win parole. But although "Life Magazine" called him "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America," governor after governor turned down his plea for release.

In 1990 Governor Buddy Roemer said, "Frankly given the nature of that crime, I'm not sure his debt's been paid."

But five years ago, following appeal after appeal, a jury disagreed.

Wilbert Rideau's fourth trial ended with a verdict of manslaughter, not murder. He was released for time served.

After 44 years, Rideau was a free man.

"I love it out here," he said. "I still don't feel like I quite belong out here. I don't have the sense of belonging that you have."

And for good reason, argues former District Attorney Rick Bryant, the prosecutor in Rideau's final trial.

"Wilbert has not paid for what he did," Bryant said. "Forty-four years may seem like a lot. I think he should have died in prison.

"He got his life back; Julia Ferguson's dead. Her family never got to have another birthday or a wedding, or a Christmas the rest of their life," he said.

"I caused the death of Julia Ferguson," Rideau said. "And, you know, it's something I've regretted ever since. But it's one of those things in life where you . . . you . . . sometimes you can't make things right.

"I know I've been the recipient of a lot of good fortune. I like to believe that it's all for a reason, that somehow or another I was chosen, so to speak, to live this long for a good reason. And that's because I believe in that, that's what I try to do."

"He has brought up issues I think are important," Bryant said. "I think he's a talented individual. Does that make him a reformed individual? Does that make him a remorseful individual? No. It's just he's shown a talent."

Linda LaBranche believes that Rideau has truly changed.

"I'm quite confident if I knew Wilbert when he was 19 years old, I would have crossed over to the other side of the street," she said. "But that's not the person I met. That is not the man I met. That's not the man I know. That's not the man that I fought for."

Rideau now shares his life with the woman who fought for his release.

"What made you marry him?" Moriarty asked.

"I married him first and foremost because I love him, and he's the best single human being that I've ever known on the face of this Earth," she replied.

But convincing others of that hasn't always been easy. As a convicted felon, Rideau has struggled to find work.

"There's an irony, isn't there, that actually you had more power and had more access to well-known individuals when you were in Angola than you do now that you're out," said Moriarty.

"That's true," Rideau said. "In fact, somebody recently asked me was there anything I missed, you know, not being in prison? And I said, 'Yeah, I miss being a big shot!' Out here, I'm just a nobody, you know?"

Rideau hopes his memoir will change that, that people will see a 68-year-old man not be defined by a single act, but rather the achievements of his entire lifetime.

But when asked if those achievement make up for the damage done to the victims, he responded, "You can't ever make up for it. There's some things that you are gonna do in life and that's wrong and you will never make up for it. All you can do is try to do better in the future."

"Do you think you have redeemed yourself for this horrific act almost fifty years ago?" Moriarty asked.

"I would like to think that. But that's not for me to decide. That's not for me to judge. I can't ever judge that. You judge that. The world will judge that. God judges that. Not Wilbert Rideau."

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