July 01, 2013

An Interview with the Most Rehabilitated Prisoner in America

Wilbert Rideau was sentenced to death in 1961, at age 19. He was freed in 2005, after his fourth trial.

Stephanie Kane

Download a printable PDF of this article (membership required).

Wilbert Rideau has been called the most rehabilitated prisoner in America. In 1961, at age 19, he was sentenced to death for killing a bank teller in a failed robbery in Lake Charles, Louisiana. In 1963, in the landmark case of Rideau v. Louisiana, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Rideau’s conviction for prejudicial pretrial publicity, describing his trial as a “kangaroo court.” Rideau was retried and again sentenced to death. That conviction was reversed in 1969 on a habeas petition under Witherspoon v. Illinois because people who had conscientious scruples against capital punishment had been excluded from his jury. After he was convicted and sentenced to death a third time in 1970, Rideau’s sentence was voided by Furman v. Georgia, and he was resentenced to life. In 2005, a successful habeas petition resulted in a fourth trial. After 44 years behind bars, more than a decade of which he spent in solitary confinement on death row, Rideau was convicted of manslaughter and immediately freed.

As extraordinary as his odyssey through the criminal justice system has been, Wilbert Rideau is even more remarkable for what he has accomplished behind bars and since he was released. A ninth grade dropout when he entered Angola Prison, he became the nation’s first black prison editor when he took over The Angolite, the first uncensored prison newspaper in the United States. He has received the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award (the first time in ABA history a prisoner was so honored), the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, and the George Polk Award. His autobiography, In the Place of Justice, won the 2011 Dayton Peace Prize. Rideau is married to Shakespeare scholar and former Loyola University professor Linda LaBranche, who became his chief investigator and the architect of the habeas petition that led to his release.

The following is the result of a series of written questions and answers and a face-to-face interview with Wilbert Rideau and Linda LaBranche. In it, Rideau candidly discusses life in prison and how he became a journalist, his views on deterrence and rehabilitation, and the unique challenges lawyers face when they represent defendants in capital cases. LaBranche addresses the role of narrative in a successful defense, and her role in digging up the facts and crafting the arguments that formed the basis for Rideau’s habeas petition. The first questions were directed to Wilbert Rideau. 


SK: When you were 19 years old, you robbed a bank and killed a teller while you were trying to escape. What drove you to do that?

Wilbert Rideau: Desperation. I perceived my life to be dead-ended and without options. I saw no avenue to a better life than the one I had. I felt that no one cared about me and that I didn’t have a place in society. In other words, I felt like an outsider, a reject, a zero, with no possibilities. Although blacks in the Jim Crow South of 1961 Louisiana were indeed barred from many places and occupations, either formally or by tradition, there were always opportunities and options out there. The problem is that if a person doesn’t know about an option or can’t see an opportunity, it does not exist for him. This is as true today as it was back in 1961. People who feel they have nothing and no place and no opportunities, feel they have nothing to lose. People who feel they have nothing to lose are dangerous.

Robbing the bank was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I missed my bus one evening, saw the bank, and thought I could change my life with all the money that was in there. Obviously, my rash act had devastating and permanent consequences not only for the teller I killed, Julia Ferguson, but for my innocent family as well. I ruined a lot of lives and caused a lot of suffering.

SK: You were sentenced to death and sent to Angola Prison, “the Alcatraz of the South,” a place you feared more than the death penalty. What was Angola like?

Wilbert Rideau: Angola was a brutal and violent place in 1962, when I arrived there. Convicted murderers were given rifles and acted as guards over the other prisoners. The prison was run by competing cliques of both inmates and guards. Rape and enslavement were commonplace. Angola had a well-deserved reputation back then as a place to be greatly feared. Ironically, death row probably saved my life, as it isolated me from the violence of the general population.

SK: You entered prison with a ninth grade education and no interest in books. What ignited your interest in reading?

Wilbert Rideau: At first, I read just to kill time and to save my sanity. Death row, which amounts to solitary confinement (although we could yell down the tier to one another), is the zenith in human cruelty. When your mind has nothing to occupy itself, it will make up its own reality. So slipping off into a fantasy world—going mad—is always a danger. Reading gave my mind something to fasten onto. The first book I read was a novel about slavery, which we had never studied in school before I dropped out. That awakened my curiosity about history and the world I left, and I was soon reading everything I could get my hands on.

The Battle for Sanity

SK: You’ve written that the struggle against isolation is a battle for sanity. What kept you going?

Wilbert Rideau: What kept me going was the contest I made of my ability to survive the cruelty of a practice designed to crush the body, mind, and spirit of a person. It is said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I just decided that the experience of solitary confinement was not going to break me, that I was stronger than whatever they could do to me.

SK: What’s the worst thing about solitary?

Wilbert Rideau: Solitary is the pits. The cruelest thing you’re ever going to do to another human being. Solitary strips you of your frame of reference that makes you who and what you are. It takes away all the social props and crutches that keep the average person sane. After a while, you lose your sense of yourself, your place in life. It alters the way you think about things, saps your spirit. You don’t have any social stimuli. It’s the feedback we get from other people that tells us whether we’re valued, whether we’re attractive, what we are and also that we have a place in this world. Once you take that away, there is nothing. Emotionally, there is no attachment, no feeling, no nothing. The bond has been severed.

SK: Was there a specific moment in solitary that became a turning point for you?

Wilbert Rideau: It’s all gradual. I don’t think there are moments. Changing, rehabilitation, my education, my maturity, it’s a gradual process. That’s the way people evolve. The difference was that I recognized that I had committed a really—I had done something really awful. I had taken somebody’s life and I could never give it back. But I also recognized that basically I was a good person. I recognized that something had gotten out of control here. Number one, it’s my fault because the world doesn’t owe me anything. Reading is what encouraged me to think about redemption. The more I read, the more I learned, and gradually I realized that I didn’t want this one act to define me and be my legacy. There’s more to me than that. I at some point decided that’s not going to be the final definition of me. If you make that decision, and you want to redeem yourself, that puts you on a path that will be productive, that will be positive. And you’ll see ways and opportunities that you wouldn’t have seen. If you want to be a journalist, you see stories. You see things that other people don’t, and will follow a course that will bring you closer to what you want. It’s not for me to say whether I’m redeemed. All I do is keep doing what I do because, although I can’t repay that debt I owe, in the end at least I will have tried. I will have given it my best shot. If I was God and had to pass judgment on you, I wouldn’t expect you to be perfect. I would expect you to try.

SK: When Furman v. Georgia converted your sentence to life, you were given the choice of living in protective custody in Angola or entering the general prison population. Why did you opt out of protective custody, and how were you able to physically protect yourself?

Wilbert Rideau: Protective custody is another form of solitary confinement. I preferred to take my chances in the jungle of the prison population than to continue in the madness of solitary. I had friends from death row who had entered the general population before I got there, and I became part of their “family,” which afforded me protection. The fact that I came off death row gave me some standing as well. Except for one or two guys on death row who had been turned out (homosexually raped and enslaved) in earlier prison stints and were therefore subject to being “claimed” again, guys coming off death row were perceived as being too dangerous to mess with. Predators in prison are like predators out in society—they look for easy prey. If you have lights around your house and a security system, burglars will usually pass you up and go rob a neighbor who has less security. But I also obtained a weapon—a knife—to protect myself with, although I never needed to use it.

Prison-Newspaper Editor

SK: Of all the prisons and wardens in this country, only C. Paul Phelps, who became Angola’s warden in 1976, had the insight and courage to authorize an uncensored—truly journalistic—publication, The Angolite. He was also your friend and mentor. What made Phelps tick?

Wilbert Rideau: He was first and foremost, by training and disposition, a social worker. His impulse was to try to help people and make things better. He inherited a prison that had just gone under a court order to clean up the violence. He thought that if the public knew how bad things were at Angola, they might be moved to improve the place. The Angolite was part of the effort to inform the public about the reality of the prison and the humanity of those who live and worked there—inmates and employees.

SK: When you took over The Angolite, you became the first black editor of a prison newspaper. How did you get into prison journalism, and how did The Angolite become your path to redemption?

Wilbert Rideau: I had tried writing while I was on death row. I wrote a novel and also a nonfiction book explaining “the criminal.” When I got into general population, I didn’t want to work in the field cutting sugar cane, picking cotton, planting and harvesting vegetables, or in the cannery—my first job—so I tried to get a job on the prison publication. The Angolite at that time was still censored, but being on staff was one of the best jobs in the prison. Unfortunately, those jobs were reserved only for whites with the official excuse that blacks couldn’t write. So in my spare time, I freelanced articles to the mainstream media and wrote a column for a chain of black newspapers in Louisiana and Mississippi. It was when the prison was forced by legal order to integrate that I was put on the staff of The Angolite. Phelps had read my freelanced articles, and when he became the warden and undertook the mission to clean up Angola, he freed the magazine from censorship. As editor of the uncensored Angolite, I was able to write and assign articles that made a difference in the quality of life in the prison and that promoted a better understanding of the problems there. I finally felt that I was using my life to make a difference for good in the world. I felt I mattered and was part of something larger than myself.

SK: While you were in prison, there was an unofficial policy that lifers were granted parole after 10 years and 6 months. You served 44 years. Why were you denied parole?

Wilbert Rideau: In order to get parole, a lifer first had to get his sentence commuted to a number (any number) of years. This process involved going to the Pardon Board for a commutation, which then had to be signed by the governor. One of the problems of becoming high-profile, as I did with The Angolite, is that politics begin to attach to you. The question is no longer the one that is asked about others seeking clemency—“Is he rehabilitated? Is he a good risk to release?” It becomes instead a question of political benefit or liability for the decision makers. Everything anyone does in your case is put under a microscope. In a very conservative state like Louisiana, there will always be voices raised against clemency for anyone convicted of a violent (and sometimes even a nonviolent) crime. So the safe route, in high-profile cases—especially an interracial case where original feelings ran high and linger still—is to deny relief.

SK: You were sentenced to death three times, after trials in which your lawyers put on no defense. What kind of rapport did you have with those lawyers?

Wilbert Rideau: The first time, the defense was simply a closing argument. They never talked to me about putting on a defense. But in all fairness, it was a different era, a different time. This is before Gideon v. Wainwright. There were no real standards for the defense of criminal defendants. Today it’s a different ball game.

SK: In your first trial, it took the jury less than one hour to return a sentence of death; the second jury took 15 minutes to return the same verdict, and the third jury took only 8. How did you rate your chances the fourth time around?

Wilbert Rideau: I was hopeful because I had fantastic attorneys who had the manpower and resources to independently review the existing evidence, dig up new evidence, and present an actual defense for me, for the first time. It was, in that respect, my first real trial, where there was anything like an equal match on both sides of the adversarial system. That gave me hope. However, my hope was tempered by the fact that I was so well known in Louisiana and that my decades-old crime had taken on a sensationalized life of its own based on untrue or exaggerated statements by the prosecutor.

SK: Your wife, Linda, was instrumental in getting you out. What was she, a nonlawyer, able to do?

Wilbert Rideau: Linda was the first person ever to read the transcripts and the record. And thank goodness she was a Shakespeare scholar. When she finished reading it, she said if I had to stage this as a play, it would be impossible. It’s not real. She said you need to go back to court. She investigated, researched, and got the evidence necessary for the lawyers to persuade the federal courts to overturn the conviction. She also gathered the evidence that enabled the lawyers to persuade the jury that most of what the prosecution witnesses said happened were lies.

Questions for Linda LaBranche

SK: Linda, describe your role as Wilbert’s investigator.

Linda LaBranche: The first thing I did when I determined I would try to help Wilbert was join with Loyola University’s Twomey Center for Peace Through Justice (then called the Institute for Human Relations). We set up a project to support Wilbert’s clemency efforts. In addition to recruiting supporters, I researched all murder convictions in Calcasieu Parish, where the crime was committed, from its earliest records to 1976, 15 years past the date of his crime. What I found surprised me, to put it mildly: Black men convicted of murdering whites received a death sentence 100 percent of the time; white on white was, I think, 25 percent; black on black, 10 percent; and white on black, zero percent. So I had some evidence that race was likely a factor in his case. The president of Loyola issued a press release about the findings, and they made their way into the public record.

SK: What did you do next?

Linda LaBranche: I researched all the clemencies that had been given to persons convicted of murder in Louisiana since 1961. At the time of my research in 1990, there were about 500 of them. Clemencies, of course, were awarded based on supposed rehabilitation. I found that none of those 500 had served as long as Wilbert, and certainly none had done as much as Wilbert to demonstrate rehabilitation. We filed this information with the Pardon Board shortly before Wilbert had a hearing, so it became available to the media and entered the public record. This information changed the nature of the debate about Wilbert’s continuing incarceration from whether he deserved clemency even though universally acknowledged to be rehabilitated, to whether he was being denied equal justice. Had all his self-improvement and award-winning work, which brought him to public attention, worked to his disadvantage by making him a political football?

SK: That was the first step in changing Wilbert’s narrative. When you turned to the case record, what did you find?

Linda LaBranche: At that time, Louisiana State University law school was a depository for all cases that had gone up to the state supreme court, and the records were held in the basement of the law school. So I read whatever was there—the 1964 and 1970 trial transcripts and transcripts of various pretrial hearings for each of the trials, including the 1961 trial, where no transcript was made of the actual trial.

When I read the case record, I was taken aback by what I found there. The way they picked jury pools in Calcasieu Parish in 1961 was this: Five white jury commissioners sat around a table with race-coded cards that had been confected by the clerk of court, who, although only an ex officio member of the commission, sat around the table with the others and thumbed through the cards deciding who to put in the jury venire. Although I am not a lawyer, I knew that such a procedure could not possibly be right because it could not possibly be neutral. Nor did it lead to a jury of one’s peers, especially for black defendants, since blacks were grossly underrepresented in the venires. I went to Calcasieu Parish and researched the race of the veniremen—women were not allowed to serve on juries back then without the express written permission of their husbands—through old voter registration cards and old city directories. The only black in Wilbert’s jury pool was a guy named Ed Flood, the “yard boy” of the clerk of court. Discrimination in the composition of the grand jury was the issue that got Wilbert a new trial.

SK: The Calcasieu Parish DA obviously didn’t take that lying down. How did he respond?

Linda LaBranche: The DA and his assistants told the media that there was no mob at the jail, inside or out, the night of the crime, when Wilbert was brought in. Although this had no value in terms of evidence (Wilbert never claimed the confession he made on the night of the crime was coerced by the presence of the mob, either as it might threaten him or his mother, who’d been brought to the jail and left in the outer lobby), it was part of the long-standing story by the defense that the prosecution just wanted to squelch. So the DA’s investigator went out and found a number of new witnesses who said there was no mob outside the jail; a sheriff’s deputy took the stand and testified that there was no mob inside the jail. They both said heavy rains made such a scenario impossible.

But, as I discovered in the transcript of a change of venue hearing in 1961, the sheriff himself (who brought Wilbert in) testified to a mob of between 200 and 300 men outside the front of the jail, testimony reinforced by the deputy sheriff who drove the car that brought Wilbert in. That there was a mob inside the jail as well was testified to by both law enforcement and citizens in that 1961 hearing. None of this would have mattered if the DA at the 2005 trial had not decided to try to “prove” that Wilbert and his defense team were lying about the mobs. As it happened, they put on witnesses that gave false testimony.

Also, had the DA and/or his investigator in 2005 done minimal research, they would have learned that rain did not visit Lake Charles that night until quite a few hours after the crime and its detection. Rather than blaming the rain for washing away evidence, they would have discovered, as we did, that the original prosecutor lied about this. Also, in 1961, law enforcement should have covered the crime scene with a tarp or taken photos to preserve evidence. In fact, they did not even post a deputy at the crime scene to secure it overnight against anyone who might remove or plant evidence or otherwise tamper with the scene. They didn’t do any of this because they didn’t do any real investigation into what actually happened.

SK: Once the habeas petition was granted, you became “keeper of the narrative.” What is the role of narrative in a jury trial, and how did you make use of it in Wilbert’s defense?

Linda LaBranche: We had changed the narrative about Wilbert from rehabilitation to equal justice as concerns clemency, and we did it with statistical evidence. When Wilbert’s conviction was finally thrown out and we were awaiting retrial, the job we had was to overcome the long-standing and inaccurate narrative of the crime—that Wilbert slit a woman’s throat ear to ear as she begged for her life.

The first job in creating a narrative for a client is to admit as much as possible of what is true. We never tried to deny that Wilbert killed Julia Ferguson. In fact, that fact was fundamental in our opening statement at trial. The question the jury would have to answer, we said, was whether his crime was murder or manslaughter. In Louisiana, manslaughter is defined as a crime that would otherwise be murder save that it was committed when the offender was not possessed of a cool and collected state of mind. So we admitted what was true and then tried, with evidence, to peel away the sensational elements of the “mythical” crime with evidence of what was not true. We had a forensic pathologist show that the small incision in Ms. Ferguson’s neck was not a stab wound made by a knife blade, one side sharp and the other blunt, but by an instrument like a scalpel with two sharp sides. That indicated a tracheotomy, which was supported by an E.R. photo showing Ms. Ferguson’s mouth depressed on one side, presumably from a breathing tube.

Racism was never given as an excuse for the crime, but understanding the racial relations and mores of the time was important in order to understand why Wilbert panicked and why law enforcement, prosecutors, and witnesses acted as they did in 1961, when their narrative became set in stone, in the media and the public mind, for the next 40 years.

SK: In Wilbert’s case, the media was a double-edged sword. Did you have any concerns that talking to the press could come back to bite you?

Linda LaBranche: Many defense attorneys do not want to talk to the media, and I believe this is a great mistake. The media makes the first narrative of any crime, and you have to correct whatever errors they make as soon as possible. In our case, the media in Lake Charles was basically an arm of the prosecutor’s office—notoriously in 1961 but also in 2005 when the local newspaperman actually sat at the prosecutor’s table during many of the hearings and during jury selection. What we did to overcome this bias as best we could was to write our briefs in such a way as to have a narrative section stating our facts (this was my job, either to draft or edit) in a compelling and reader-friendly fashion. The local reporter would sometimes print this section of our brief verbatim in the newspaper. Thus, we got out facts the other side didn’t like, and we got them out in a memorable way, story-like.

In many venues, it might not be necessary to do this to get your side of the story out, but writing a good narrative is always a good idea because judges, who have to read this stuff, are human beings, too. You don’t want to lull them into a stupor or put them to sleep with dry legal arguments, though they also have a place, obviously. The first rule of writing is to do your job: Know your audience (the judge) and write your brief in a way that will enable her to see your client as a fully human being with a story of why things went the way they did.

The Effects of Prison

SK: What does prison do to a person?

Wilbert Rideau: Prison changes you, just like going into the military changes you. When I walk into a room, I still notice things that others don’t. I function differently. I’m always mindful of possible problems. I was changed. But I’m a better person. I found opportunities in prison, but it was always thanks to people along the way, from the jail deputy who loaned me his Fabric of Society, to C. Paul Phelps, who created opportunities for me. Phelps said, “If you hadn’t put in as much work on yourself as you had, I wouldn’t have even noticed you. You’d be just like everybody else. You make your own luck.” He also used to say, “People are attracted to style.” People with style are attracted to other people with the same style. But, in prison, most people don’t even get visits. When you’re talking about attracting people, you don’t have much opportunity to do that. The prison environment is not one that encourages you to do anything. There’s no encouragement, no incentive, no support.

SK: Is there such a thing as a “criminal personality”?

Wilbert Rideau: That depends on how you define “criminal.” There are decent but ignorant people who make bad decisions. There are people who cannot control their emotions and get into trouble that way. There are people who don’t want to work for what they want. And there are some people who are pathologically mean and resentful of what others have that they don’t, to the point of being (for lack of a better term) evil. I wrote an unpublished manuscript 40-some years ago about the criminal, and I plan to revisit that subject from a more informed perspective in a forthcoming manuscript.

SK: You’ve described prison as the law of the jungle, and many prisons today are indeed run by gangs. Should corrections officials try to suppress them or rely on them to maintain order?

Wilbert Rideau: Angola in the old days was run by cliques of inmates and guards who headed either reform factions or criminal enterprises (protection rackets, drug-running, slavery). There will always be inmate leaders who will facilitate either order or chaos inside a prison. The trick for prison administrators is to find ways to vest leadership in inmates who work for the good of the population rather than relying on gangs to maintain order, which can be just another form of terrorism. Again, a good example is what Phelps did with The Angolite, making it an uncensored voice for prisoners, run by inmates who had a vested interest in living in a safer environment. In Angola, under Phelps and most of his successors, inmate leaders were writers, artists, paralegals, heads of self-help clubs, and so on. They had to maintain good behavior to keep their positions and got benefits in return—no field work, extra visits, small things like that. They had a lot of clout because they could help prisoners solve their problems, and prisoners run into a lot of problems.

SK: Does the death penalty deter crime?

Wilbert Rideau: The death penalty deters crime only in that the person who is executed cannot commit another crime. But that’s mangling the concept of deterrence. However, in all my years dealing with those on death row or in prison or facing capital trials, I have never met anyone who thought about the death penalty before committing a crime. I guess professional hit men may weigh the consequences of their act before committing it, but the kind of violent street crime we normally think about (murders, robberies, drive-bys) is not committed by people who have thought through their actions. When crime is impulsive, rash, driven by emotions, desperation, or drugs, the possible penalty for the crime is not a factor. If society wants to deter violent crime, we have to do a better job of making sure children do not grow up like feral animals guided only by the need to survive. The way to curb street crime is through mentoring, like Big Buddy programs, and education. Smart people who see options in life don’t hold up banks or mug tourists.

SK: Is everyone capable of being rehabilitated?

Wilbert Rideau: Not everyone can be rehabilitated. Some people are so damaged by their life experiences that they are bitterly angry and resentful of anyone who has anything they don’t have. They live in the grip of negativity and blame everyone else for their failures or lack of success. If they’ve demonstrated a tendency toward violence already, this makes them extremely dangerous, and I would not release such a person from prison. But I will say also that in all my decades behind bars, I’ve run into very few people who fit that profile. For the most part, at some point long-term prisoners want to be better than they were before they went to prison. The most effective tools authorities have to encourage rehabilitation are to provide constructive outlets for prisoners’ energies, positive avenues and opportunities for growth, and some kind of incentive for good behavior—things that work to humanize rather than brutalize them.

SK: You’ve described today’s inmates as “better schooled but more stupid, street-raised weeds who do not care about a world that does not value them. This makes them walking time bombs.” Once they’re in the system, is there any way to break through to this new breed?

Wilbert Rideau: In and out of the system, barring real psychiatric and emotional problems, everybody’s reachable in life. We’re all malleable. But, inside the system, there is no real attempt to do anything. Back in the seventies, while I was in prison, they declared rehabilitation was a failure. Rehabilitation has never been tried, at least not in this country. They come up with programs, just enough to serve as window dressing. It’s for the benefit of the public. Right now the magic words are reentry, because recidivism is what it is. It was front-page news on newspapers around the state when I walked out of prison without a dime to my name, but with plenty of recognized skills and awards. I still haven’t received the first phone call asking, do you have a place to sleep tonight? Do you have a job? And you wonder why there’s recidivism? For the average prisoner released back into society, nobody’s going to hire this guy. Chances are he has no skills, he’s unprepared, nobody’s bothered to show him you’ve got to have a driver’s license, an I.D. What it took you all of your life to learn, how to cope in society, he has to do instantly. When society has a guy under its total control for years, there is no excuse why that guy should not have his GED. What ex-cons encounter is a pretty hostile society. It doesn’t matter where you go. There’s a certain amount of social ostracism, in addition to the economic problems. You’re like a foreigner in a strange land. Nobody’s likely to embrace you.

SK: What are you doing now?

Wilbert Rideau: Besides writing, I consult with capital defense teams around the country who are having various kinds of difficulties with their clients. Because I was a capital defendant myself three times on a single charge and have faced the same situation their client is dealing with, and because I have worked with literally thousands of prisoners both on and off death row, I am usually able to facilitate better communications and greater understanding between the defense team and the client. Also, my years as editor of The Angolite gave me the opportunity and the responsibility to see prison and prisoners from several perspectives. I have worked with wardens and administrators, district attorneys, defense attorneys and their clients, and prisoners who have never had a visit in 20 or more years. My unique experiences in prison have given me a well-rounded insight into the system and those involved in it.

As the coordinator of the Life Support Project, which operates under the auspices of the Federal Death Penalty Resource Counsel Project, I serve as faculty at training seminars for capital defense teams. I love doing this because it allows me to use my accumulated experience to try to make the attorneys more effective counselors by helping them understand some of the obstacles they face in dealing with their clients and finding strategies to overcome those obstacles. This work makes me feel that I am putting to good use what I learned during all those decades in prison to help fashion solutions that are win-win all the way around.

Finally, I lecture around the country on issues related to the attorney-client relationship, the death penalty, and the criminal justice and prison systems. After more than four decades in prison, these are things I know something about.

Lawyers and Capital Cases

SK: What unique challenges do lawyers face in capital cases?

Wilbert Rideau: The thing is, almost equal to the defense strategy, law, and evidence, is the client. And the lawyer’s ability to relate to his client, to understand his client, and get him on the same page with him. The only tool they have to do this is their relationship with their client. It all depends on getting the client to listen to him, establishing a base of trust and credibility. Sadly, there are too many lawyers who don’t even try. They see themselves as knights in shining armor there to rescue the client. They don’t understand why the client isn’t more appreciative and grateful for their efforts, why he doesn’t want to cooperate. They come from different worlds. They see each other differently. Typically, in capital cases, the lawyer is white. The client is often black or Hispanic. They have different ways of seeing, feeling, behaving. They have different value systems. Quite often the lawyer comes from a world, a system that the client sees as his enemy. Law schools don’t teach this. They teach students how to manipulate the system, deal with process, be respectful to judges. They don’t teach you how to interview a client from the streets. My guess is that when many lawyers think of interviewing a client, it’s a very abstract thing, usually with a civil client. That criminal defendant is not the same as a civil client. I met with a client in Tennessee who was represented pro bono by a silk-stocking law firm. When they visited him, they came down en masse. They talked to him like they would talk to a white-collar client. But this client isn’t going back to his mansion after meeting with his lawyer. He’s going back to a crummy cell, the bowels of the jail.

SK: What’s the most important thing the lawyer can do?

Wilbert Rideau: The client needs to believe that this guy works for him and has his best interests at heart—that he really cares about him, and he’s not just a folder in his office. It’s only my last defense team where I knew these people cared about me and I was involved in the defense. There was no doubt in my mind about where they were coming from. They approached me as a human being. You’d be surprised how many lawyers don’t do that. What they’re taught to do is to have a professional distance. Their idea of a professional distance is we’re not gonna get too close to each other here. They don’t realize it, but they’re sending a message that I don’t want to get my hands dirty.

They need to get to know their client. They need to visit their client. Especially if he’s being held in an isolation cell. The fact that a majority of prison suicides happen in a cell tells you what kind of power isolation has. Frequently, the lawyer’s the only person who’s going to come and have contact visits with the guy. In training programs, I try to give lawyers the client’s perspective. That’s something nobody has ever tried to do in the past, as far as I know. A lot of lawyers have no bedside manner, just what they believe is being professional. Well, being professional sometimes doesn’t cut it. Their client is a street criminal. They have absolutely nothing in common. They talk different, they look different, they behave different. The lawyer talks precise English; the client talks out of the corner of his mouth, street talk. The lawyer thinks this is the kind of guy I really don’t like to begin with.

SK: How can the lawyer move past that?

Wilbert Rideau: Barring psychiatric problems and real emotional problems, you can transcend that. The client is in one spot and you have to go to him. I mean both physically and culturally. You can’t meet with him in a bar or a restaurant to get to know him. He can’t come to you. You’ve got to build trust, credibility with him. You’ve got to find a way to relate to him or else you shouldn’t be representing him. When you don’t like somebody, eventually the person is going to pick up on that. You can’t hide it. At some point, he’s going to pick it up and that’s the end of the relationship. He will be skeptical and suspicious of everything you do.

SK: Is that where you come in?

Wilbert Rideau: Yes and no. A lot of times, unfortunately, they bring me in at the eleventh hour and expect a miracle (and I’ve been lucky more often than not), or when it’s too late to save the relationship. The problem you’re having with the client happened long before now. And the client will have indicated it to you. The client will say, up front, I don’t want you to interview my family or pursue mitigation. He’ll be uncooperative with the attorneys, not forthcoming about his life or his crime. He’ll have an unrealistic appreciation of his situation or unrealistic expectations for settlement or trial. He’ll become a problem inside the jail and make things more difficult for himself, his lawyers, or both. The problem is that often lawyers will just breeze past these things. When you’re talking about a criminal defendant, a lot of lawyers believe he’ll change, he’ll come around, the problem will pass. With many criminal defendants, it will only get worse. Most lawyers will think whatever the problem is will resolve with time, and they’ll postpone dealing with it. The lawyer will generally feel that in time it will work out, I don’t have to worry about it now, I’ve got a trial to prepare for. Instead of breezing past the problem, they should pay attention to it. They should be talking to that guy because their client should be their greatest resource, and they should be mindful the prosecution will be making an offer later and they need that client to be on the same page with them.

SK: What do you do when you are brought in?

Wilbert Rideau: My job is, when defense teams are having difficulties with their clients, or the client is resisting some particular deal or strategy or mitigation, I’m sort of like a troubleshooter. First, I’ve got to find out what the real problem is. Most times, the client doesn’t tell the lawyers the truth because he doesn’t trust them, or he feels embarrassed or ashamed, or he feels they could not possibly believe, understand, or appreciate where he’s coming from. So I go in and find out the truth, what the problem really is, and then try to fashion a solution. Sometimes what the defendant needs is just information about the system, the prison culture, how things really work. More often than not, everybody’s scared of going to prison, but that’s not always the overarching reason they have difficulties with their lawyer. Quite often, it’s distrust. Number two, it’s this sense of my life has ended. Sometimes it’s family issues. Sometimes a guy is engaging in magical thinking. Often, my role is getting them out of the clutch of despair. It’s all in what is driving that particular guy.

SK: In 2005 you were released. Is freedom what you expected?

Wilbert Rideau: Freedom is more wonderful than anything I ever dreamed about when I was in prison. Simply to be able to live a normal life is precious beyond reckoning. To be able to choose where to live, what to eat, whom to befriend, when to sleep or rise, is a gift. I don’t miss anything about prison, except a couple of friends who are still stuck there.

I learned a number of lessons in prison that have served me well out here. I learned that everyone struggles with hardship and worry at some time in their life. I learned that hard times pass if you are patient. I learned to take the high road and not to stoop to the level of someone who wants to harm me. I learned that good people are drawn to you if you are about the right thing. I learned to be grateful for the trees and the grass and the squirrels and the cats and my wife.

Stephanie Kane

The author is an associate editor of Litigation.