Black man freed, but no rejoicing here

By Leonard Pitts

Yes, his civil rights were violated.

He was held without access to an attorney for 10 days. Lawmen threatened his life. His interrogation was filmed and then televised, tainting the small-town jury pool.

They did it because it was 1961, because it was Louisiana, and because he was a black man accused of killing a white woman.

But Wilbert Rideau was not innocent; he had in fact committed the crime of which he was accused. Nor was it some minor offense. He robbed a bank, took three people hostage and then, on a road outside Lake Charles, shot and stabbed one of them to death.

So you will understand why I find it difficult to know how to feel about the fact that Rideau was set free last week.

This was after his fourth trial. The previous three all ended in murder convictions, each overturned by higher courts on procedural grounds: the first, because of that tainted jury pool (the Supreme Court called the trial a “kangaroo court”), the second because prosecutors excluded jurors who had reservations about the death penalty, the third because blacks were barred from the grand jury.

The fourth time was the charm. Rideau was convicted of manslaughter and set free because, after 44 years behind bars, he had already served the maximum penalty for that crime almost twice over.

If my response is ambivalence, I’m sure his supporters have no trouble knowing what to feel: elation, vindication and joy. Rideau, whom Life magazine famously called “the most rehabilitated prisoner in America,” transformed himself while behind bars. He became, of all things, a journalist, an editor of the Angolite magazine, produced by and for prisoners of the state penitentiary at Angola. His work won him the prestigious George Polk and Robert F. Kennedy awards; a documentary about life at Angola even netted him an Oscar nomination in 1998.

At 62, Rideau is not the 19-year-old who committed a senseless crime four decades ago. It’s easy to understand why some would celebrate his freedom.

But me, I keep circling like a homing pigeon back to an immutable fact. He killed somebody. There isn’t enough rehabilitation in the world to minimize that act.

My point is that the Rideau case is a moral conundrum even without the question of race. It pushes us toward dark shadows of irresolution, asks us to decide whether we really believe in rehabilitation and redemption and whether we can do that without breaking faith with the dead. It’s a puzzle knotty enough to furrow your brow all by itself.
And then there is race, which invariably layers in dimensions all its own.

Julian Murray, Rideau’s attorney, has amassed statistics proving that white murderers were sentenced to life in prison and released in the time Rideau sat behind bars. As Murray told a reporter, “No black person has ever killed a white person in Calcasieu Parish and got out of jail.”

So I suppose it is fair to free Wilbert Rideau. First, because he is no longer the man he was. Second, because the considerations we extend to killers ought not be decided on the basis of race.

It is a faintly ridiculous thing to have to say and in that, it speaks volumes about the nation we were and, in too many ways, still are. We draw racial distinctions among the despicable, sift even the contemptible by color of skin. A white man may have killed somebody, but he is still, at the end of the day, a white man.

Which is to say, a man.

It makes Wilbert Rideau a rather odd icon of racial progress or the lack thereof. He is a human balancing act, victimizer and victim wrapped in one skin. Because of that, he forces those of us who understand the vulnerabilities of black people in a color-coded system to do a balancing act of our own.

You can’t embrace him, yet you can’t quite push him away.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him at (888) 251-4407 or via e-mail at lpitts@herald.com