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Celebrated African American Author Wilbert Rideau Reindicted on Murder Charges

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The celebrated African American author and editor Wilbert Rideau was reindicted several days ago on murder charges. Shackled hand and foot and wearing a bulletproof vest, Rideau was taken from the state penitentiary at Angola and returned to Lake Charles, where he faces his fourth trial in the 1961 murder of a bank teller. His murder conviction was overturned by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December because Blacks were improperly excluded from the grand jury. But Calcasieu Parish District Attorney Rick Bryant vowed to try Rideau again rather than let him go free.

The award-winning prison journalist has already spent 39 years in prison in Angola. After initially being turned down for a position on the prison publication The Angolite, which had an all-white staff, Rideau started a publication of his own called The Lifer and wrote a column for Black newspapers. In 1976, he was named editor of The Angolite and used the magazine to examine such topics as inmate suicide, rape, riots, executions and prisoner rights. Under his leadership, the magazine was showered with honors, including the George Polk Award for special interest reporting, the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award.

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Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re listening to Democracy Now!, The Exception to the Rulers. I’m Amy Goodman. In a minute, we go to Dennis Rivera, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Jackie Jackson, who have just been released from jail protesting the bombing of Vieques. But now we turn to the African American author and editor Wilbert Rideau, his case. He was reindicted several days ago on murder charges. Shackled hand and foot and wearing a bulletproof vest, Rideau was taken from the state penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana, and returned to Lake Charles, where he faces his fourth trial in the 1961 murder of a bank teller. His murder conviction was overturned by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in December because African Americans were improperly excluded from the grand jury. But the local district attorney vowed to try Rideau again rather than let him go free.

The award-winning prison journalist has already spent 39 years in prison. After initially being turned down for a position on the prison publication The Angolite, which had an all-white staff, Rideau started a publication of his own called The Lifer and wrote a column for Black newspapers. In 1976, he was named editor of The Angolite and used the magazine to examine such topics as prisoner suicide, rape, riots, executions and prisoner rights. Under his leadership, the magazine was showered with honors, including the George Polk Award for special interest reporting and the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

We turn now to one of his attorneys, George Kendall.

Can you explain what happened, how this reindictment?

GEORGE KENDALL: Yes. The case has returned to Calcasieu Parish. As you said, the district attorney there, Rick Bryant, has vowed to retry, reconvict Mr. Rideau of murder to guarantee that he will return to Angola with a life sentence and, in Mr. Bryant’s view, I think, hopefully, remain there until he dies. And so, that’s what Mr. — that’s what the district attorney wants. I think there are a good number of citizens in Calcasieu Parish, however, who, I think, either don’t want any retrial whatsoever — a TV station there has been polling, and over 70% of the parish has voted that they think a fourth trial in this case would be a waste of money. And so I have some hope that — I’m not sure when — that we’re going to be able to resolve this matter in the way it ought to be, that Mr. Rideau has served — he’s paid his debt to society, and it’s now time for everyone to move on.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain his crime and his original sentence and how it came to be that it was overturned?

GEORGE KENDALL: His crime was a robbery of a bank. There were three bank employees involved. One of them, unfortunately, died during this event. He was arrested shortly thereafter the crime and interrogated by the local sheriff. Unbeknownst to him, at the time of his interrogation, the sheriff had allowed the local TV to bring a camera into the interrogation room. And thereafter on several occasions, his statement to the authorities, which implicated himself deeply in this crime, was played on television over and over again.

He is convicted by an all-white, all-male jury and death sentenced in April of 1961. In June of 1963, the United States Supreme Court reversed his conviction. And this is the only time, in my memory, the court has used this kind of language. They characterized his 1961 trial as a kangaroo court proceeding. It was obvious to the Supreme Court that once his statement had been televised repeatedly, that the case ought to have been moved to another part of Louisiana where potential jurors had not seen that statement.

He was retried in 1964 in East Baton Rouge Parish, again before an all-white, all-male jury. I think the jury spent about 15 minutes before they imposed the death sentence. That death sentence and conviction was overturned in 1969 by a federal court because numerous persons who just harbored some doubts about the death penalty were excluded from the jury. He was again tried in 1970, again in East Baton Rouge Parish, again before an all-white, all-male jury. That jury took eight minutes before deciding that a death sentence should be imposed. And finally, in 1973, the Louisiana Supreme Court vacated his death sentence, as it had to under the United States Supreme Court decision in Furman v. Georgia and imposed a life sentence.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, how did it get overturned ultimately?

GEORGE KENDALL: And then, thereafter, Mr. Rideau sought, because of good behavior, sought relief on — by clemency. And although in the time that he’s been incarcerated over 700 other Louisiana prisoners who had been convicted of murder were released, he was not. Four times, the Board of Pardon and Parole recommended his release; four times, governors of Louisiana said no. And so, in 1994, he brought a claim to the federal court that Blacks had been excluded very significantly from the grand jury process. He had raised this issue both before his second and third trials, but the state courts just rejected it out of hand. And in December of last year, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously concluded that he was entitled to a new trial because there was very serious, egregious racial discrimination in the make-up of the grand jury, and thus that’s why the case has returned to Calcasieu Parish now.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is the district attorney so determined not to let Wilbert Rideau go?

GEORGE KENDALL: Well, that’s a very good question. He has been the point person for the District Attorney’s Office for the last 15 or 16 years. He personally has gone to the Board of Pardon and Parole and urged that Mr. Rideau not be set free. He characterizes this crime as really the crime of the century, and which is unfortunate because there have been a number of very aggravated murders in Calcasieu Parish since this crime. They’ve all been white offenders. And all those white offenders have been — or most of those white offenders have been released from prison, unlike Mr. Rideau. But I think he is also running for reelection next year. Seventy-five percent of the voting public is white, and so I think we’re seeing some influence of that election on what Mr. Bryant is saying to the press about this case.

AMY GOODMAN: George Kendall, what about your representation of Wilbert Rideau?

GEORGE KENDALL: Well, the Legal Defense Fund sees this case as an important case. Mr. Rideau has spent 40 years in prison. He has done everything one can do to redeem himself. And if he were simply treated like other prisoners in Louisiana, he would have been released a long time ago. They’ve made an exception for him by requiring him to stay in prison this long. I think there are four or five — there are only four or five other prisoners in the history of Louisiana who have served more time than he has. In a sense, his achievements now are working against him. And Mr. Rideau’s view, for many years, has simply been “Don’t treat me any better than anyone else. Just treat me the same, that if you’re going to parole people who have been convicted of murder after 15 or 20 years, then I don’t want any less, I don’t want any more.” And unfortunately, I think politics have intervened in the clemency process and have kept him in prison.

And so, we also see this as an important case of why it’s oftentimes unwise to impose such long sentences on youthful offenders. Mr. Rideau was an eighth grade dropout, 19 years old when this crime occurred. I think no one could have imagined that he would, under the circumstances he was in, achieve what he has achieved. But it simply shows that under the most difficult of circumstances, redemption is oftentimes possible. We think —

AMY GOODMAN: Has the court refused to appoint you?

GEORGE KENDALL: I’m sorry?

AMY GOODMAN: Has the court refused to appoint you?

GEORGE KENDALL: Yes, the court did refuse to — last week, we had a hearing, which we had no notice of. I just happened to be in Calcasieu Parish. And Mr. Rideau is indigent. Everyone agrees to that. He’s entitled to appointed, compensated counsel. And the charges — they refuse to appoint myself and Julian Murray, a lawyer, a very good lawyer in New Orleans, who has represented Mr. Rideau for more than 15 years at no charge to Mr. Rideau, who’s a very talented lawyer. And in most other courts, it would have been a no-brainer that Mr. Murray and myself would have been appointed. Instead, the trial judge appointed another attorney from New Orleans whom Mr. — who no one really knows, and the local public defender, Ronald Ware, who’s a very good lawyer, but whose office is hopelessly overwhelmed with a huge volume of cases.

AMY GOODMAN: Can they do that, I mean, if he — if you have both represented him for so long?

GEORGE KENDALL: Well, we think — we are in the process of filing paper to the court that the court made a huge mistake and that we are confident that the court is going to see — once he sees the legal authority, he’s going to reach a different conclusion.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the — what about the issue of how he was brought out, in what clothes?

GEORGE KENDALL: Well, that was particularly disturbing to me, because it’s important that when people are charged with a crime, that they, if they choose to appear in court, appear in civilian clothing. But the state has no right to tell somebody who’s charged with a crime what they are going to wear in court. And we had provided Mr. Rideau with civilian clothing. That’s what he preferred to wear. And, in fact, we brought the clothing in before the hearing. The marshals had no problem with letting him wear that clothing. And to my utter amazement, after he had put all that clothing on, the judge directed the marshals to require Mr. Rideau to take that clothing off and put on his orange jail jumpsuit, to be manacled and to put a flak jacket on. And that’s how he was forced to appear in court. And we immediately objected to that. There was no security reason to do that. Nothing required that. And we’re also going to be filing papers with the court in the next couple of weeks to say that that was also a mistake and that the state simply can’t require citizens to don its clothing to come to court.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, George Kendall, are there any right-wing groups that are influencing this case?

GEORGE KENDALL: Unfortunately, yes. There are a number of organizations in Louisiana who tout themselves as friends of victims, who I think are playing a significant role in putting media attention on how unfair Mr. Rideau’s release would be to the victims of this case. And they’re well organized and well funded. In fact, in Louisiana now, the Board of Pardons now is made up of five members. One of those members, by law, has to be somebody connected with one of these groups. And just recently, this board changed its policy so that the only way somebody can be voted for a pardon or for clemency is if the Board of Pardon unanimously makes the recommendation. And so, now that one member really now controls pardon and commutation policy in Louisiana. And they’re not — I’m not aware of any other state that has such an arrangement. And clemencies and paroles have dropped to almost nothing in Louisiana as a result.

AMY GOODMAN: George Kendall, I want to thank you for being with us, the lawyer for Wilbert Rideau.

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