Video: Free at last

updated 1/17/2005 6:15:23 AM ET 2005-01-17T11:15:23

A quietly jubilant Wilbert Rideau savored his first weekend as a free man since John F. Kennedy was president.

“This is all new to me. I’m writing a new chapter,” he said.

Rideau was a janitor and high school dropout when he held up a bank in 1961 just days after his 19th birthday, and killed a white woman. “I don’t even know him anymore,” he told The Associated Press on Sunday.

Rideau, a black man convicted three times in the case by all-white juries, became an award-winning journalist during more than four decades in the nation’s bloodiest prison — the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. He was released Saturday when a racially mixed jury found him guilty of a lesser charge of manslaughter.

Since he spent nearly 44 years in prison, Rideau was immediately released. He had served more than double the 21-year maximum for manslaughter when the crime occurred.

No plans for freedom
Jurors effectively decided Rideau had been punished enough for Julia Ferguson’s slaying, a crime that still divides his native Lake Charles along racial lines. Rideau left for Baton Rouge on Sunday morning, and his supporters said they were worried for his safety because of sentiments surrounding the case.

Staying at a friend’s home, Rideau said he had no firm plans yet.

“I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it,” Rideau told the AP in one of his first interviews since the verdict. “Jail is so far distant. It’s distant.”

Asked about how freedom felt, he replied: “I don’t know yet. I haven’t lived out here. I’m just starting my life when people my age are ready to retire.”

Rideau, 62, never denied that he killed Ferguson on Feb. 16, 1961, after kidnapping three employees from the Gulf National Bank. Having shot his captives as they tried to get away, he stabbed Ferguson when she struggled to stand. Testifying for the first time in this trial, he said it was an act of panic.

Defense argued racism clouded crime
The defense presented a picture of 1960s-era racism in Lake Charles, tying it to sensational details in the case — some which later came into question. In 2000, a federal appeals court said his original 1961 indictment was flawed because blacks were excluded from the grand jury.

Rideau served more time in prison than any other convicted murderer in the history of Calcasieu Parish, including murderers convicted of more than one murder. He was called “the most rehabilitated prisoner in America” by Life magazine in 1993. The NAACP came to his defense.

Prosecutors, however, dismissed Rideau’s contention that although he killed Ferguson, he did not intend to murder her. But after deliberating for nearly six hours, the jury of eight whites and four blacks agreed with him that the crime was not planned or premeditated.

Rideau nodded slightly to the jury after his verdict was read, a gesture of thanks. “That was a humbling experience,” he said. “I love the fact that there were eight whites on that jury.”

Award-winning journalist
While jailed, he became a self-educated writer and helped transform the prison publication, “The Angolite,” into a nationally acclaimed magazine. He also co-directed “The Farm,” a prison documentary that was nominated for an Oscar in 1999, and wrote and narrated an award-winning National Public Radio documentary.

In retrospect, Rideau expressed remorse for his victims.

“When you do something like that to somebody, they have the right to feel any way they want about you,” Rideau said. “I realize words are pretty inadequate. But that’s all I’ve got right now.”

Don Hickman, whose father, bank branch manager Jay Hickman, was one of the two people whom Rideau shot and left for dead, expressed disappointment with the verdict.

“I was telling a friend of mine this morning we’ll just have to learn to live with it,” said Hickman. Will blacks and whites in Lake Charles now be able to discuss the case together? “I don’t think they’ll talk in the same vein,” he said.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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