'In a Place of Justice' There is Possibility of Reform

by John L. Murphy

6 June 2010

After 44 years and four trials, freedom comes from Louisiana's harshest prison, Angola. An inmate's side of a controversial case.
cover art

In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance

Wilbert Rideau

(Knopf Doubleday)
US: Apr 2010

This memoir attests to the possibilities of reform. It’s aptly titled in its double meaning and the ambiguity his incarceration has been based upon. Rideau, 115 lbs., five-foot-seven, scared and with a new knife and pistol after being beaten up and vowing to get revenge and then to get out of Lake Charles, Louisiana, nineteen years old, impulsively robs his local bank. The adverb is crucial.

Acting out of “panic and impulse” meets the state definition of manslaughter, not murder. Rideau kidnaps three white employees and takes them to a rural highway. One woman bolts out of the car and runs. Without thinking, Rideau fires and shoots into the darkness. He then stabs one woman in the throat in the chaos.

Narrowly avoiding a lynch mob in the Jim Crow South of 1961, his arrest triggers what one Supreme Court Justice will call a “kangaroo trial.” Evidence is planted or tainted, witnesses lie, and an autopsy is bungled. Racial animosity played up by his prosecutors leads an all-white, all-male jury to find him guilty of murder in fifteen minutes.

Sentenced to death at Angola, one of the nation’s most violent prisons, he tells of life on the inside. He served most of his term of forty-four years there. Others convicted of the same crime were eligible for parole after ten years, six months. Basing his rights as opposed to the unconstitutional proceedings under which he was sentenced, Rideau was twice retried, and twice he was denied freedom.

He gained fame by his editorship of the prison newspaper, The Angolite. Under a sympathetic head of corrections, C. Paul Phelps, Rideau and his staff gained the relative freedom to investigate injustices in the system. He earned national awards and media attention for his journalism, and even traveled to speak about his situation throughout the state.

Still, with the 1990s crackdown on rehabilitation as opposed to warehousing, his criticisms were censored. He tells of the profiteering by the prison industry so dependent upon government contracts, unions, and business interests. This aspect, in fact, merited wider attention than this narrative provides. Rideau understandably concentrates upon his own redemption, his own awareness of the crime he committed and the remorse he learns, and of his own legal struggles over decades to earn a fair trial and his release.

While minutiae about his difficulties in reporting from inside prison, and the retrials and reconsiderations of his case may slow readers down in the latter portions of this hefty book, it is only fair that Rideau uses this forum to express his own side of a still controversial story. Four-and-a-half decades later, his fourth trial led to considerable outrage, and many in Louisiana still opposed his release. But the charge of manslaughter was upheld, and in 2005 he left prison.

He tells of his surprise at re-entering society in a desegregated South, and of his struggles to find his footing. Opponents may not be pleased that he declared bankruptcy to avoid $117,000 in court fees charged to him, but Rideau insists that based on his unconstitutional sentencing, he deserves a fresh start free of debt. He argues that he has paid his debts and more.

Struggling from his eighth-grade education and impoverished, fearful, abusive upbringing into his role as a spokesman for prisoners and an advocate for reform, Rideau tells his story with an eye for detail and a determined levelheadedness. His self-control has been hard won.

He credits those, nearly all from the white community rather than his own, who advocated for his release and supported his pleas. He learns remorse, educates himself, and admits his actions and their mortal consequences. This intelligent, straightforward version of his side of events—from inside a predicament few readers will otherwise experience—expresses his message of redemption and renewal well.

In the Place of Justice: A Story of Punishment and Deliverance


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