updated 1/12/2005 2:27:17 PM ET 2005-01-12T19:27:17

A funeral home worker sent to collect the bloodied body of a bank teller killed in a 1961 robbery testified Tuesday against the prison journalist convicted three times in her death.

Wilbert Rideau, 62, has had three previous convictions overturned and is hoping this latest trial will result in his freedom. His lawyers do not deny he killed Julia Ferguson but are hoping for an acquittal or a manslaughter verdict that would allow him to be released for time served.

His defenders say the renown that Rideau has won as an award-winning prison journalist is evidence of his rehabilitation. Prosecutors want a conviction for murder that would keep him locked up for life for Ferguson’s stabbing death following a February 1961 armed robbery at the bank where she worked.

Prosecutors are emphasizing the crime’s brutality.

James Holston, who was a funeral home worker at the time, told of being sent to gather Ferguson’s body from the rural road where Rideau had left it after shooting and stabbing her.

“This lady was lying on the road. Her throat was cut, her eyes were open, blood was running down,” said Holston, 74.

“I cuddled her head when I picked her up because I didn’t want to lose her head,” he said, adding: “I’ve seen a lot but this was one of the events I’ll always remember.”

The defense insists Rideau did not slit Ferguson’s throat and a photograph introduced in evidence of her body appears to show only a small wound.

Trial testimony
Past trial testimony from law enforcement officers involved in the case — now all dead — was read in court by a local radio personality.

Ferguson’s body, left beside a road outside town, was a mess, recalled Hoye Burnett of the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff’s Office: “Her waist was bloody. Her throat was cut.”

The defense has portrayed Rideau, then 19, as a confused and fumbling youth whose robbery plans spun out of control.

Originally sentenced to death for Ferguson’s murder, Rideau was spared in the 1970s when the Supreme Court tossed out then-existing death penalties. Meanwhile, he made a name for himself as part of a team that turned the state penitentiary’s prison magazine, The Angolite, into a critically acclaimed award winner.

Earlier convictions quashed
His first two convictions were overturned on appeal. His third stuck until 2000, when a federal court said he was entitled to yet another trial because black people were excluded from the grand jury that indicted him.

Jury members, some of whom had not been born when the crime happened, were selected in northeast Louisiana’s Ouachita Parish because decades of news about the case in Lake Charles made it impossible to find an unbiased jury in the state’s southwestern corner.

State pardon boards have recommended clemency four times. But Rideau’s bid for clemency from a no-parole life sentence has been denied by two governors in the face of stiff opposition from the victim’s family and Lake Charles authorities.

In this trial, Rideau does not face the possibility of the death penalty.

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