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

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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. 


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