In murder retrial No. 4, racial issues resurface

A Louisiana man, convicted three times since a 1961 killing, finally gets a racially mixed jury as case reopens this week.

The sturdy brown suitcase used to hold the money, the ladies' pump found inside the bank, the photo of a knife used to stab the victim - all reminders of a shocking crime in a small Louisiana oil town.

They've been seen before, these ghosts from the past. For 44 years, the details and evidence associated with the bank robbery, kidnapping, and murder on Feb. 16, 1961, have clung to the town's consciousness like the bubbling crude that is its livelihood.

Now they are on display again, in court for the fourth time since the crime occurred. And just as if it happened yesterday, the residents of Lake Charles are captivated by the proceedings.

The question is not whether Wilbert Rideau, a black porter, shot and stabbed Julia Ferguson, a white bank teller, after a bungled armed robbery. His lawyers openly admit his guilt for her death.

At issue is whether the killing was premeditated or the actions of a flustered teenager. The difference for Mr. Rideau is freedom or a life confined to the prison that has made him famous.

The trial, taking place here in Lake Charles this week, comes at a time when many civil rights cases of white violence against blacks are being reopened. But Rideau's case shows a more complex side of life - and racism - during those turbulent years in the South.

His three convictions by all-male, all-white juries have been overturned by federal judges who said Louisiana's criminal-justice system denied him the right to a fair trial by deliberately excluding blacks.

And throughout the years of trials, appeals, and retrials, Rideau educated himself and became an acclaimed journalist (winning the prestigious George Polk Award) and documentary filmmaker. Four state Pardon Boards have recommended his release, but met a governor's veto.

Now, supporters say, his celebrity may be the very thing keeping him from freedom. "If he was any other prisoner who stayed straight and kept his head down, he would be out by now. He's a victim of his own rehabilitation," says J.L. Franklin, a spokesman for the 60 black ministers in Calcasieu Parish.

Mr. Franklin petitioned the Louisiana Supreme Court to intervene and transfer the case to another jurisdiction. That didn't occur, but the state district judge did agree to pick jurors from a northern county and have them brought down and sequestered. Both sides hope this trial, with a racially mixed jury, will settle the case.

Because the case is so old, the trial is highly unusual in some ways. Stand-ins are playing the roles of 13 witnesses who are dead or incapacitated. Other witnesses are being asked to recall 44-year-old facts. Only a third of the original exhibits have been preserved, and crime scenes are gone.

But for the most part, the facts aren't disputed. Rideau, a 19-year-old who worked at a fabric store near a branch of the Gulf National Bank, walked in and robbed it of $14,000. He then loaded the bank's manager, Jay Hickman, and two tellers, Dora McCain and Julia Ferguson, into a sedan, drove them to a bayou near the edge of town, and shot them.

Mr. Hickman was struck in the arm, but managed to escape by jumping into the bayou. Ms. McCain was shot in the neck and pretended to be dead. But Ms. Ferguson, shot in the shoulder, began begging for her life, according to previous testimony. That's when Rideau pulled out his knife, stabbed her in the heart, and slit her throat, the prosecution maintains. The defense, led by George Kendall, claims Rideau shot them as they fled, not after lining them up, and is asking for a verdict of manslaughter.

District Attorney Rick Bryant says the facts of the case support first-degree murder, which carries an automatic life sentence. But many blacks say the DA frequently cuts plea deals with other murderers for lesser charges, and question his motives for not doing so with Rideau.

Because manslaughter carried a maximum sentence of 21 years in 1961, Rideau would be eligible for immediate parole if convicted of a lesser charge. Already he has served longer than most people do for murder - even with life sentences. (The average time served by criminals given life sentences reached 29 years in 1997, up from 21 years in 1991, as tough-on-crime initiatives have led to longer penalties.)

But Rideau's case is politically volatile in a town where a statue of a confederate soldier still stands before the old courthouse. "The South's Defenders," reads the plaque below the soldier.

While the town is almost 50 percent African-American and the parish 30 percent, many blacks still feel very isolated and disempowered. A large percentage of blacks here believe Rideau has served more than enough time for his crime and would have been let out long ago if the victims hadn't been white. A large percentage of whites believe he should be locked up for life, if the death penalty is not available.

"Don't forget, he killed one person and left two for dead," says Essie, a white woman who did not want her last name used. "He should remain in prison for the rest of his life. I mean, he was already given the death penalty once." That sentence was vacated when the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty in 1972.

Sitting outside a Lake Charles hair salon waiting for her daughter, Essie says she was 29 years old at the time of the murder and thinks the case should be put to rest once and for all. But she does not subscribe to the idea that racism still exists in this town.

Indeed, times have changed, and lake gambling - the town's new economic provider - has lured a wide range of people. But most of the opportunity is still reserved for white people, says Alfred Deville, an African-American interviewed as he leaves a mall near where the crime occurred.

Mr. Deville first heard of Wilbert Rideau when he was 10-years-old and on his way to help his uncle clean the bank Rideau had just robbed. They were told not to bother cleaning that night.

It would not be the last time their lives intersected. Sent to Angola, the state prison, on a drug charge, Mr. Deville spent nine years hearing about all of Rideau's achievements and awards while inside the state prison.

"He was more isolated and didn't fool with the rest of the [prison] population," says Deville. "He had so many books in his cell, and was always teaching himself something new. And all the while, people were getting out of prison for worse crimes than his."

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