LAKE CHARLES, La.—It ended in the night, much as it had begun nearly 44 years ago.
In 1961, a young black man named Wilbert Rideau kidnapped three whites and shot and stabbed one of them to death after a bank robbery in this town with the sweet-sounding name.
Late Saturday night, a mixed-race jury found Rideau—who had been convicted of murder three times by all-white juries—guilty of manslaughter. That allowed him to walk out of prison a free man because he had already served nearly twice the maximum sentence for that crime. The verdict ended a decades-long ordeal for a man who had gained fame as a prison journalist, winning the prestigious George Polk and Robert F. Kennedy awards and sharing an Academy Award nomination for a documentary film.
Rideau, now 62, says he hopes to write and “redeem myself in the eyes of all those who had faith in me during all these years.”
“This jury,” he said, “reached back and pulled a judgment out of the racial clutches I was long in.”
Rideau’s defense team was ecstatic. “This is a case about fairness and redemption,” said Ted Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “It’s tragic it has taken Wilbert Rideau over 40 years to receive a fair trial before justice could prevail in this case.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund—the group is distinct from the NAACP itself—joined his cause in 1998. So did members of the clergy. The Rev. J.L. Franklin of Lake Charles, a rotund man given to colorful suits—one day he came to court dressed in a green suit, the next day in a creamy beige number—brought Johnnie Cochran to Lake Charles in 2003 for a church rally on Rideau’s behalf.
“It’s a judicial lynching,” Franklin, 38, said in an interview on the eve of trial. “The only problem is in the ‘60s it was a rope. This year it’s the law. You’re talking about a man’s life hanging in the balance. The DA’s budget exceeds $4 million. You spend millions on a 40-year-old case. It’s ludicrous.”
Rideau’s new defense strategy walked a tightrope between portraying race relations in Louisiana of 1961 and the reality of a murder confession. “He was involved in a crime that occurred at a difficult time for the state of Louisiana,” said Vanita Gupta, a Legal Defense Fund lawyer. “The race climate isn’t being used to justify the death of Julia Ferguson, but in trying to understand how the police dealt with this case—airing his comments as they did. Law enforcement played a significant role because of the racial mores of the time.”
District Attorney Bryant, in an effort to counter the defense’s racial arguments, asked Rideau about allegations that he hated whites.
“Actually, you were one of the earliest perpetrators of a hate crime, were you not?” Bryant asked.
“It wasn’t hate, it was anger,” Rideau answered.