From killer, to award-winning journalist . . . to freedom?
Angola, La. — The remarkable story of Wilbert Rideau, as he would tell it, does not begin 25 years ago with a frustrated, self-hating black youth committing a brutal murder. ``That person is a stranger to me now,'' he says. ``I don't even know him. I don't want to know him.''
Rather, it begins a year later when the young Rideau, still cocky, walked into a death row cell and the enormity of his crime began to settle on him.
Eventually, he resolved against all odds to make something of his life, to leave a legacy, as he puts it, ``other than hate, violence, and frustration.''
By most accounts he has succeeded.
Convict Rideau has become a national award-winning journalist, cultivated friends in high places, and wielded an influence well beyond the razor-wired prison fence. He has even appeared on ABC-TV's ``Nightline'' with US Chief Justice Warren Berger.
But he has failed to secure his own release. ``It's what I live for,'' he says. ``Life's not all just misery and human suffering just to appease someone's idea of punishment.''
Rideau's story has raised knotty questions of punishment, race, and moral reformation for a quarter of a century. Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards is trying to answer the central one now: Should Rideau be released?
Rideau's keepers consider him thoroughly rehabilitated. ``If you read his writings over the past 10 years,'' says Louisiana Secretary of Corrections C. Paul Phelps, ``it becomes apparent that these [Rideau and his prison co-editor Billy Sinclair] are free minds trapped in prisoners' bodies.''
A state pardon board unanimously voted for clemency for Rideau two years ago. Governor Edwards denied it.
This month, by a three-to-two vote, another state pardon board voted for clemency.
Frank Salter, the Lake Charles, La., district attorney who prosecuted the murder case in the 1960s, thinks Rideau should stay behind bars. ``The law does not provide for the rehabilitation of a person whose crime has been so heinous that he has been sentenced to death,'' says Mr. Salter.
Further, he says: ``The mere fact that you have a good mind and are self-educated does not mean you're rehabilitated.''
Rideau, a French- and English-speaking Creole from the Lake Charles area in southwestern Louisiana, grew up poor in a time and place of strong racial segregation. An eighth-grade dropout, he worked at menial jobs until one day -- at age 19 -- he walked into Gulf National Bank, took three hostages out to a country road and shot all three. When one of the wounded tellers pleaded for mercy, he killed her with his knife.
The other two hostages survived. One, Dora McCain, says she still fears for her life should Rideau ever be released.
Looking back, Rideau calls his crime ``an act of suicidal rebellion'' by a youth who disliked himself.
His confession before the local sheriff was secretly filmed by the local TV station and broadcast repeatedly. This caused the US Supreme Court to overturn the first of Rideau's three unanimous death sentences by all-white, all-male juries. (The second was thrown out because of improper jury-selection procedure.)
The case became a cause c'el`ebre in the Lake Charles area and still draws popular outrage there. Part of the reason, Governor Edwards told a reporter several years ago, was that Rideau was black and his victims were white.
Rideau was on death row until 1972, when the US Supreme Court struck down Louisiana's capital-punishment law. His sentence was commuted to life in prison.
By this time Rideau had long since come to terms with his crime and decided that he wanted to live his life out and achieve some kind of redemption. He had also educated himself.
Rideau wanted to write for the prison newspaper, the Angolite. But the staff was all-white. Later, having become a clerk in another prison operation, he had use of a typewriter. Soon he was writing a weekly column for outside newspapers.
At the time the Angola prison -- an isolated, pastoral expanse on the banks of the Mississippi -- was one of the toughest in the country, controlled by battling inmate gangs. C. Paul Phelps became warden in 1976 and, he says, ``proceeded to tame Angola.''
He decided the prison was overrun with rumors and myths and needed a newspaper that inmates would read and believe. He tapped Rideau as editor.
Rideau and co-editor Sinclair, have been walking a razor's edge ever since with their bimonthly magazine. They don't stick to safe subjects. They have written long, thoroughly researched, detailed, and unblinking stories on homosexual rape and slavery in prison, on forgotten prisoners, and on prison scams.
Rideau says he is surprised at how little has been censored. ``This freedom, this allowing us to be aggressive, wasn't won in any court,'' he notes, but exists in a totalitarian environment.
The no-holds-barred Angolite has actually meant prestige for Angola's officials, rather than embarrassment. Warden Frank Blackburn and Secretary Phelps have traipsed off to collect the prestigious George Polk Award at Columbia University and the Robert F. Kennedy Award at the home of Ethel Kennedy on behalf of the Angolite. The prison paper was a finalist in 1978 for a National Magazine Award and has twice won the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel award.
Rideau and his two fellow editors share a reasonably spacious office equipped with telephones in Angola's main prison building. Officials drop in frequently to put their feet up and chat.
Much of his work never gets into print, says Rideau, as he makes use of his hard-won but delicate clout to resolve prisoners' problems, often by subtly threatening officials with negative press.
Does Rideau have the freedom to actually write such stories?
Yes, says Mr. Phelps, ``but he's smart enough not to write them too often.''
The pardon board has recommended that Rideau's sentence be commuted to 60 years, which would make him eligible immediately for release on parole.
Governor Edwards turned Rideau's bid for release down two years ago on the grounds that the prisoner had already received one reprieve when he left death row.
The governor later told a Louisiana editor that he was taking popular opinion in Lake Charles into consideration.
The example of Jack Abbott, a killer and talented writer freed with the support of novelist Norman Mailer only to kill again, hasn't helped Rideau's cause.
But prison officials say that, unlike Abbott, Rideau has proved his character reformation over the years.
``His intentions and character have been tested more than those of most prisoners who have been released, and he's never failed any test,'' Walter Pence, Angola's former chief of security, told the pardon board this month. ``If I had the power, I would release him.''