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Music Cues: Wilbert Rideau
Scott Simon
December 23, 2000

Wilbert Rideau death sentence overturned audio

Julia Ferguson was shot to death in 1961. She was a bank teller in Lake Charles, Louisiana, when the bank was held up by a 19-year-old man armed with a gun and a knife. When the police closed in, he took three hostages at the bank. The hostages begged the man not to harm them. They begged for mercy. He shot them one-two-three where they sat on the floor. One of them managed to run away wounded, another pretended to be dead. Julia Ferguson, bleeding and desperate, bravely tried to crawl away. The robber stopped her, stabbed her and slashed her throat. Julia Ferguson bled to death.

Her killer, 19-year-old Wilbert Rideau, was sentenced to death and sent to the notorious Angola State Prison farm. When the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Louisiana's death penalty statute, he was sentenced to life in prison, and has been in Angola ever since.

Yesterday, a court of appeals in New Orleans overturned Wilbert Rideau's conviction. Mr. Rideau is a black man, but just one of the 20 grand jury members who voted to indict him for his crimes in 1961 was black. It wasn't by coincidence. Black jurors were often excluded from jury duty at that time in that parish. If the state of Louisiana wants to keep Wilbert Rideau in prison, they'll have to retry him or set him free after 39 years.

Now should the fact that Wilbert Rideau has created a new life in prison and become a nationally admired writer, journalist, filmmaker and reformer impress state officials who must now decide whether to retry a murder case against a man who's already been locked up for 39 years? Mr. Rideau has never cited his fame as a reason for mercy. He doesn't deny his crimes or the pain they've caused. He has apologized, and said he knows that no apology can be enough. He says he learned to read and write in prison and became a crusader for civility because, quote, "I didn't want a criminal act to be the final definition of me. I picked up a pen and tried to do something good. It allowed me to weave meaning to what would have been a meaningless existence. It also gave me a chance to try to make amends."