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Wilbert RIDEAU





Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Bank robbery - Kidnapping
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: February 16, 1961
Date of arrest: Same day
Date of birth: February 13, 1942
Victim profile: Julia Ferguson (bank teller)
Method of murder: Stabbing with knife
Location: Lake Charles, Louisiana, USA
Status: Sentenced to death in 1961, 1964 and 1970. Each time, appeals courts eventually threw out the verdicts, citing misconduct by the government. On January 15, 2005, in a fourth trial convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 21 years in prison. Since he had already served nearly 44 years, he was freed immediately
photo gallery

Wilbert Rideau (born February 13, 1942) was described by Life magazine in March 1993 as "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America".


Rideau was incarcerated in Louisiana State Penitentiary (better known as Angola Prison) from 1961 to 2000, convicted in three successive trials by all-white, all-male juries of murdering bank teller Julia Ferguson in the aftermath of a bank robbery. A fourth trial in 2005, before a mixed-race jury of ten women and two men, resulted in a conviction of manslaughter, for which he was sentenced to 21 years. Since he had already served nearly 44 years, he was freed immediately.

Legal history of the case

Rideau’s case, which dates from the pre-Civil Rights era, is widely studied in law schools for the landmark decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court concerning pretrial publicity (Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 723 (1963). The Court overturned Rideau’s 1961 conviction because the local television station, together with local law enforcement officials, covertly filmed an “interview” with the teenager and repeatedly broadcast it, resulting in what the Court called “Kangaroo Court proceedings.” Rideau was retried in 1964 and 1970, each of those convictions was also overturned because of constitutional violations. He won a new trial after 40 years incarceration because black people were excluded from the 1961 grand jury that indicted him.

Rideau’s case split the Lake Charles, Louisiana, community along racial lines for four decades, even to the fourth and final trial in 2005, when white spectators sat behind the prosecutor’s table and those seated behind the defense were primarily black.

Although Rideau had always admitted robbing the Gulf National Bank, fleeing with three employees, and killing Julia Ferguson, the final trial pitted the prosecution’s 40-year-old sensational version of events—which held that Rideau lined up his victims before shooting them and that Ferguson begged for her life—against the defense’s contention that Rideau reacted impulsively first when a phone call interrupted the robbery and then when employee Dora McCain jumped from the car and ran and the other two employees followed suit, and that the killing was done in panic rather than premeditatively. The defense debunked the highly sensational elements in the prosecution’s version to the satisfaction of the jury.


When he was six, his family moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana (a city about 40 miles from the Texas border on Interstate 10). He attended the all-black Second Ward Elementary School. He was born into poverty, and when his parents later divorced, he became even poorer. He transferred to W.O. Boston Colored High School when he was in eighth grade and soon started playing hooky. At 13, he got a job at a grocery store and eventually stopped going to school.

He had just turned 19 when he committed the crime that would take him to Angola penitentiary for more than four decades.

Rideau spent 12 years on death row until the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1972 Furman v. Georgia ruling abolished the death penalty as it was then applied. Rideau, like all other condemned in Louisiana, had his sentence judicially amended to life imprisonment by the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Prison Journalism

In 1975, the federal court ordered the Angola prison to be reformed, and the outgoing warden C. Murray Henderson appointed Rideau editor of The Angolite. The incoming warden, C. Paul Phelps, ratified the choice and, with a handshake, gave Rideau freedom from censorship and thus created the nation’s only uncensored prison publication. The one requirement Phelps put on Rideau and the inmate staff was that they had to be able to prove the truth of whatever they published—in other words, they had to adhere to professional journalism standards.

Rideau became known for his exposés of prison life and won some of journalism’s most prized awards, including the Robert F. Kennedy Award, the George Polk Award, and the Sidney Hillman Award. He was the first prisoner ever to win the American Bar Association’s Silver Gavel Award. The Angolite was the first prison publication ever to be nominated for a National Magazine Award, for which it was nominated seven times. Rideau was credited with helping bring peace and reform to what had been called “the bloodiest prison in America” in the 1970s.

He traveled the state as a lecturer accompanied only by an unarmed guard and was permitted to fly to Washington D.C., twice, to address the nation’s newspaper editors on the subject of prison journalism.

Rideau, with former associate-editor of The Angolite Ron Wikberg and University of Louisiana at Lafayette Professor Burk Foster, put together a criminal justice textbook now in its fourth edition and still in use today in Louisiana. Rideau and Wikberg also collaborated on Life Sentences, a 1992 anthology of articles from The Angolite, now out of print. Rideau and Wikberg, for their journalism, were named “Person of the Week” on Peter Jennings’ World News Tonight in August 1992.

In the 1990s, Rideau branched out into radio, television, and documentary film making, becoming a correspondent for National Public Radio, producing a segment for ABC-TV’s newsmagazine “Day One”; pairing up with radio documentarian Dave Isay for “Tossing Away the Keys,” and helping to create and produce two films, “Final Judgment: The Execution of Antonio James” and “The Farm,” which was nominated for an Academy Award.

Clemency efforts

Rideau was an exemplary prisoner, and because nearly all other surviving prisoners convicted of murder in the same time period in Louisiana had been released, his inability to get clemency became another controversy. Governor Edwin Edwards, it was revealed by ABC-TV “20/20”, made a secret promise to surviving bank teller Dora McCain that he would never release Rideau, although he believed him to be fully rehabilitated and although he had released hundreds of others convicted of murder and manslaughter.


In December 2000, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans threw out Rideau’s 1970 murder conviction because of racial discrimination in the grand jury process in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. To the surprise of many outside of the area, the Calcasieu Parish prosecutor decided to try Rideau for a fourth time. He was re-indicted in July of 2001, and freed in 2005 by a jury verdict. Whereas he had been represented by local court-appointed attorneys in his first three trials, his defense team in 2005 included criminal defense icon Johnnie Cochran, nationally renowned civil rights attorney George Kendall, and famed New Orleans defense attorney Julian Murray, who all worked on the case for free.

As with every American trial, this one had to be prosecuted under the laws that were in effect at the time of the crime: 1961. The jury was free to convict Rideau of murder – the state elected to prosecute under the “specific intent” rather than the “felony murder” doctrine of the 1961 statute – or manslaughter, which in Louisiana is any homicide that would otherwise be murder if it is either committed without specific intent to harm an individual, or if it is committed in the heat of passion such as the panic the defense argued Rideau was in.

Shortly after Rideau’s release, Judge David Ritchie, who had declared Rideau indigent at trial, ordered him to pay over $127,000 to the court to cover the cost of the trial that freed him. This order was overturned by the Louisiana Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.


Wilbert Rideau (born February 13, 1942) was described by Life magazine in March 1993 as "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America". Rideau was incarcerated in Louisiana State Penitentiary (better known as Angola Prison) from 1961 to 2000, convicted of murder three times before a fourth trial in 2005 convicted him of manslaughter, allowing time already served to fulfil his sentence.

In 1976, Rideau became editor of the prison magazine, The Angolite, which he developed into a professional, award-winning bimonthly magazine. He is also known for helping to produce a number of award-winning documentary films, including The Farm, a film about Angola Prison that was nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Feature and which won best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998.

When he was six, his family moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana (a city about 40 miles from the Texas border on Interstate 10). He attended the all-black Second Ward Elementary School. He was born into poverty, and when his parents later divorced, he became even poorer. He transferred to W.O. Boston Colored High School when he was in eighth grade and soon started playing hooky, shooting dice, and vandalizing tombs in a cemetery. Then he started selling cigarettes, three for a nickel. At 13, he got a job at a grocery store by pretending to be 16 and eventually stopped going to school.

According to trial testimony, on February 16, 1961, Rideau, then 19 years old, robbed $14,000 from the Gulf National Bank, kidnapped three bank employees — tellers Dora McCain and Julia Ferguson and manager Jay Hickman — and forced them into Ferguson's car, directing her to drive out of town. After Hickman tried to escape as Ferguson slowed the car to determine where she was, Rideau exited the car and chased Hickman. Rideau shot him, then shot McCain and Ferguson as they also tried to flee the car. Hickman hid in a nearby bayou, and McCain feigned death, but Rideau found Ferguson alive, stabbed her in the heart, and allegedly slit her throat (although the 2005 trial would dispute this, with defense witness Dr. Werner Spitz noting that autopsy pictures showed the cut was only an inch long and more likely a tracheotomy).

Rideau was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white, all-male jury. While in parish jail and on death row, Rideau began to read books smuggled in to him by guards and began to write, starting with writing letters for fellow inmates in exchange for cigarettes or money. He also began corresponding with Clover Swann, an editor at the New York Times.

Later, the United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction in Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 U.S. 723 (1963) on the basis that a secretly taped interrogation session was aired repeatedly on the local television station KPLC-TV's evening news, resulting in a biased jury pool and a "kangaroo court." A second trial in 1964, again by an all-white male jury, reached the same result, but in 1969, a federal appeals court overturned this conviction as well: the prosecution had removed numerous qualified jurors because of their hesitancy to impose the death penalty.

In 1970 he was retried — again by an all-white, all-male jury — and again with the same result. The death sentence was overturned in 1973 by the Louisiana Supreme Court, in accord with the United States Supreme Court case Furman v. Georgia, which had voided all death penalty statutes then extant in the U.S., but let the conviction stand. Rideau asked to be transferred to The Angolite prison magazine's all-white staff and, when that was refused, started a prison magazine called The Lifer with an all-black staff. He started writing a column called "The Jungle" for black newspapers in the South.

In 1975, the federal court ordered the Angola prison to be reformed, the outgoing warden C. Murray Henderson appointed Rideau editor of The Angolite. The incoming warden, C. Paul Phelps, ratified the choice and made it so that The Angolite had to be held to the same standards as any respected publication. Rideau brought on two co-editors, Tom Mason and Ron Wikberg, and Billy Wayne Sinclair in 1978. Soon, the magazine transformed from a mimeographed newsletter into a glossy magazine, and it started winning awards.

In the 1980s, four pardon boards unsuccessfully recommended Rideau for release; he has been an exemplary prisoner, and nearly all other surviving prisoners convicted of murder in the same time period in Louisiana have been released.

In 1988, Loyola University of New Orleans' Twomey Center for Peace Through Justice established the Rideau Project. The purpose of the project was to obtain freedom for Rideau.

Rideau became a sought-after lecturer. In 1991, he, along with Wikberg and University of Louisiana at Lafayette Professor Burk Foster, wrote a criminal justice textbook.

In the December 2000 case of Rideau v. Louisiana, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans threw out the 1970 conviction on the basis that "purposeful" racial discrimination tainted the grand jury process. The case returned to Calcasieu Parish, which, to the surprise of many outside of the area, decided to try Rideau for a fourth time. He was re-indicted in July of 2001.

After much legal maneuvering, that trial took place in January 2005 in Lake Charles, Louisiana in the court of Louisiana 14th Judicial District Judge David Ritchie. Jury selection began January 3, 2005 in Monroe, Louisiana rather than Lake Charles, because finding an unbiased jury in Lake Charles at this point was ruled an impossibility. The prosecution was led by District Attorney Rick Bryant. The defense team included nationally-recognized defense attorney Johnnie Cochran and famed New Orleans defense attorney Julian Murray.

In a key victory in the trial for the defense, the only two verdicts Judge Ritchie allowed were on the 1961 definitions of murder — a premeditated killing with a sentence of life imprisonment without parole — and manslaughter, which carried a 21-year sentence. By 2005's standards, the killing would have fallen under Louisiana's second-degree murder offense, as Rideau killed while committing another crime, but no distinction between first- and second-degree murder was made in the trial.

On January 15, 2005, Rideau was convicted of manslaughter by a jury of seven whites, four blacks and a person of mixed race after nearly six hours of deliberation, and with credit for 44 years served was quickly released from the Calcasieu Correctional Center.

He quickly left the Center in a waiting car and traveled to a small hotel, which happened to be on the same street where he killed Ferguson, before travelling to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he gave his first full interview as a free man to the Associated Press. Twomey Center legal researcher Linda LaBranche said the move was in fear for his safety. Julian Murray said Rideau had been sent threatening e-mails, which he dismissed as the work of "kooks." In interviews, Rideau's family had expressed surprise that Rideau had already made extensive plans for his freedom and was quickly acting on them.


The Legal Case: 1961 - 2001

On February 16, 1961, 19-year-old Wilbert Rideau was arrested in connection with the killing of white female teller Julia Ferguson in the aftermath of a bank robbery in which two other white bank employees were wounded.

Calcasieu Parish Sheriff "Ham" Reid instructed the arresting officers to meet him 11 miles outside of town so that he himself could bring in the teenager. The public was kept abreast of developments through news bulletins aired on local radio and television. By the time Ham Reid reached the courthouse in Lake Charles, a white mob had gathered out front. To elude the angry crowd, he had to sneak Wilbert in through the back door.

The young black suspect was not asked if he wanted a lawyer or told that he had a right to an attorney. He was not allowed to see anyone, not even his mother, who had gone to the jail for that purpose. Sheriff Ham Reid held Wilbert incommunicado until he could arrange for the local television station to secretly film him "interviewing" the teenager. Flanked by two state troopers, the sheriff described the crime by posing leading questions to the young suspect, who mumbled answers in agreement. This spectacle, which has widely been called Wilbert Rideau's "confession," was televised to the Calcasieu Parish community for three days running on KPLC-TV.

At just this time, Louisiana was waging a war with the federal government to prevent integration of the public schools. White parents kept their children out of school in protest; the state legislature passed a bill to abolish public education and to sell the school buildings rather than integrate. Racial tensions were at an all time high.

Sheriff Reid's televised "interview" further inflamed the community. Wilbert's family was harassed by callers who promised to "give him the rope if he doesn't get the chair." White men, who sat drinking in parked cars across the street from the Rideau home in an all-black neighborhood, shook their fists and hurled insults at the household.

Wilbert Rideau was indicted on March 1, 1961, by a grand jury selected from a pool hand-picked by five white jury commissioners who sat around a table and thumbed through race-coded cards they'd made up for that purpose. The only African American picked for that jury pool was a yardman who worked for one of the commissioners.

After he was indicted and arraigned, the court appointed two attorneys engaged in the practice of civil law to represent the black teenager. Neither had ever handled a criminal case. They were given less than six weeks to prepare for trial. They asked that the trial be moved away from Calcasieu Parish because of the sheriff's "interview," which had been broadcast repeatedly to an enraged community. They argued that the entire community was prejudiced by the inflammatory publicity. The court refused to move the trial.

The trial courtroom was standing-room-only. Space usually reserved for attorneys was roped off for additional spectators. Nearly 450 white people crammed themselves into a courtroom designed to hold 300. They stood against the walls and in the aisles, and overflowed into the corridor. An all-white, all-male trial jury was picked. The judge refused to disqualify persons who were friends or relatives of the victim or the witnesses. He refused to disqualify a man who had only months before printed campaign literature for the prosecutor. The defense quickly used up its allotted challenges. As a result, the jury included two Calcasieu Parish sheriff's deputies, a relative of the victim, a vice president of the largest bank in the area (who had known the wounded bank manager-a key witness for the state-for twenty-five years), and three persons who admitted they saw Ham Reid "interviewing" Wilbert on television.

It's not clear from court records whose decision it was not to make a trial transcript. The reason given was that the Rideau family was indigent and could not pay for it. The two civil lawyers handling the defense were not aware that no transcript was being made until jury selection was well underway because the court stenographer sat in her place, as usual, even though she was not recording the proceedings. As the trial continued, the lawyers laboriously made longhand notes of their objections. Had they not, there would have been no record at all upon which to appeal the jury's verdict.

Wilbert's lawyers did not cross examine the key witnesses against him, challenge evidence, or present a defense. As soon as the state finished presenting its case, the defense rested. The jury retired for an hour and Wilbert was convicted of murder, which carried a mandatory sentence of death.

In 1963, the United States Supreme Court called Sheriff Ham Reid's televised interview of Wilbert Rideau a "spectacle." Justice Stewart, writing for the Court, called what happened in Calcasieu Parish "kangaroo court proceedings" that rendered any subsequent trial in a courtroom "a hollow formality." The Court threw out the murder conviction and said Wilbert could not be tried anywhere within the reach of KPLC-TV. [Rideau v. Louisiana, 373 US 723 (1963).]

In 1963, Louisiana law only permitted trials to be moved to an adjoining judicial district and no further. Because all the adjoining judicial districts fell within the broadcast range of KPLC-TV, the trial judge declared a judicial impasse, saying Wilbert could not be retried. The district attorney appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, which basically suspended state law so that a retrial could go forward.

The district attorney insisted upon moving the 1964 retrial to Baton Rouge. The defense strenuously objected, both because KPLC-TV could be received in Baton Rouge and because there had been massive newspaper coverage of the case. Their objections were to no avail. During jury selection, the Baton Rouge DA, who was assisting the Calcasieu prosecutor, nonchalantly admitted that he was a member of the Citizens' Council, the genteel counterpart of the Ku Klux Klan. The second trial went pretty much the same as the first. A second all-white, all-male jury spent 15 minutes deliberating before convicting Wilbert of murder again.

That murder conviction was thrown out by a federal court in 1969. There was another trial in Baton Rouge in 1970. A third all-white, all-male jury "deliberated" for eight minutes before convicting Wilbert of murder. He was moved back to Death Row at Angola.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated all death sentences across America, saying that the way the death penalty was applied was capricious and unconstitutional. (Furman v. Georgia, 408 US 238.) Louisiana, instead of retrying those on Death Row, resentenced them to Life in prison. In May 1973, Wilbert Rideau was put into the general population of prisoners at Angola, which at that time was one of the most dangerous prisons in the country. Inmate cliques, sexual enslavement, and rifle-toting convict guards made violence a fact of daily life.

At this time, Louisiana had what was known as the "10-6" life sentence, meaning that lifers with clean conduct records were eligible for release after serving 10 years and six months. It was virtually automatic. Mr. Rideau had a spotless conduct record and a "10-6" date that had passed in mid-1971. He applied for a commutation of his sentence in 1974 and was turned down by the pardon board. The same thing happened in 1976. In 1979, according to the New York Times Magazine (11/18/80), Governor Edwin Edwards phoned a member of the pardon board known to favor clemency for Mr. Rideau and asked him to vote against the inmate, who had by now become a high-profile, award-winning journalist.

In 1984, 1986, 1988, and 1990, pardon boards recommended commuting Mr. Rideau's sentence so he could be released. A 1989 ABC-TV "20/20" investigation discovered that Edwin Edwards made a secret promise during an election campaign to the bank teller who had been wounded, saying that he would never release Wilbert Rideau, no matter what.

Governor Buddy Roemer denied clemency to Mr. Rideau in 1988 and 1990. In 1989, "20/20" asked him what more Wilbert Rideau could possibly do to "earn" clemency. This is what he said: "His only chance to overcome what he did is what he might propose he could do so that those kinds of crimes would happen less in the future, not more. Only he can address that." It was impossible for anyone familiar with Mr. Rideau's case to understand what Governor Roemer might have meant. Mr. Rideau had already spent more than a decade working with judges to deter kids from a life of crime.

In 1994, Wilbert Rideau filed a petition of habeas corpus in the U. S. Middle District Court for Louisiana, alleging racial discrimination in the way his grand jury was selected because the white commissioners used race-coded cards to pick anyone they wanted to sit on the grand jury panels. The case was assigned to a magistrate, who recommended in 1997 that the habeas be granted. In 1999, the chief judge overruled the magistrate and denied the habeas. On December 22, 2000, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans overruled the Middle District judge, ruling that the state of Louisiana must retry Wilbert Rideau a fourth time or release him.

In 1988, the Shreveport Journal's editorial board wrote: "Numerous corrections officials - from every warden at Angola who has worked with Rideau to former Secretary of Corrections C. Paul Phelps - have said that if there is any prisoner in America who has been rehabilitated it is Wilbert Rideau, and that he is no threat to society. ... The average length of incarceration for a convicted murderer in the United States is roughly seven years. Rideau has served [many] times that long. This is a mockery of the corrections system because Rideau has done everything the judicial system asked of him and much more. ... His continued incarceration despite universal agreement of his rehabilitation is a black mark on the state's judicial system."

Now, the district attorney of Calcasieu Parish is saying he will retry Wilbert Rideau, who has already spent 40 years in prison - longer than any offender in the history of Calcasieu Parish.


Freed After 44 Years, a Prison Journalist Looks Back and Ahead

By Adam Liptack - The New York Times

January 17, 2005

Wilbert Rideau, an acclaimed prison journalist and confessed killer, walked out of the Calcasieu Parish Courthouse in Lake Charles, La., a free man on Saturday night after serving 44 years for stabbing a bank teller through the heart in 1961.

In Mr. Rideau's fourth trial for the killing, a jury on Saturday found him not guilty of murder, which would have resulted in a life sentence. Instead, the jury convicted him of manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 21 years, effectively freeing him.

In an interview yesterday, Mr. Rideau, 62, said he had wasted no time in leaving Lake Charles, a racially divided city near the Texas border that remains fiercely split about whether he has paid his debt for the killing or whether he should have been executed long ago.

"The first thing I did when we left Lake Charles was stop and get some sun shades," Mr. Rideau said cheerfully over the phone, suggesting that he needed to disguise himself. "I should get a baseball cap, too."

Three all-white juries sentenced him to death for the killing in 1961, 1964 and 1970. All three convictions were overturned by appeals courts for government misconduct. The last conviction was thrown out in 2000 when a federal appeals court ruled that the exclusion of blacks from the grand jury that indicted Mr. Rideau was unconstitutional.

"The first trial, I think, the decision was in eight minutes," said Mr. Rideau, who is black. "This time, we had only one white male."

The latest jury, which also contained seven white women, two black women, a woman of mixed race and a black man, was from Monroe, in northern Louisiana, in deference to the tensions in Lake Charles.

"They came from one of the most conservative regions of Louisiana," Mr. Rideau said. "We had some nervousness about that. These things happened 44 years ago, before many of them were even born."

This time, the jury deliberated for five and a half hours, returning with a verdict at 10:40 on Saturday night.

Rick Bryant, the Calcasieu Parish district attorney, said the jury had ignored the evidence.

"The verdict makes no sense," he said yesterday. "It's a subtle jury-nullification type of thing. The jury basically said, there is still a conviction and he's done a lot of time."

Mr. Rideau has never denied that he robbed a Gulf National Bank branch in Lake Charles on Feb. 16, 1961, that he kidnapped three white employees of the bank or that he shot them on a gravel lane near a bayou on the edge of town. Two of the employees survived, one by jumping into the swamp, the other by feigning death. But Mr. Rideau caught and killed Julia Ferguson, a teller, stabbing in her in the heart.

The two sides at the trial last week agreed on those basic facts. They differed about whether the killing was part of a calculated plan or the result of a bank robbery gone awry committed by a hapless 19-year-old.

"I've been saying for 44 years that, yes, I'm responsible," Mr. Rideau said yesterday. "But it didn't happen the way they said it. They said I lined them up execution-style. The evidence never supported that. Between the local media and the legal system, though, they pretty much did what they wanted. A lot of what the community thought, through hand-me-down word of mouth, never really happened."

Mr. Rideau testified in his own defense, a potentially risky move given his acknowledged responsibility for the crime. But George H. Kendall, one of Mr. Rideau's lawyers, said the testimony was crucial.

"The state's narrative was a very simple, understandable narrative," Mr. Kendall said. "We had to have an alternative narrative, and the only way we could get that out was through our client."

Mr. Rideau said his initial plan was to lock up the employees at the bank and take a bus out of town with the $14,000 he had stolen. When that was foiled by an ill-timed phone call from the bank's main branch, he said, he came up with a second plan. He would drive the employees far out of town in a teller's car and escape as they walked back. But they jumped from the car before he could accomplish that, and he started shooting.

"If I had intended to kill those people, eliminate witnesses, I would have done it right there in the bank," Mr. Rideau testified on Thursday, according to The Associated Press. "It never entered my mind that I was going to hurt anybody."

Theodore M. Shaw, the director-counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which also represented Mr. Rideau, said he found it hard to reconcile Mr. Rideau's crime with the thoughtful and accomplished man he has become.

"I've never lost sight of the fact that when Wilbert was 19 he did something incredibly stupid and tragic," Mr. Shaw said. "On the other hand, he's not the man he was then. It's a story of redemption."

Mr. Shaw pointed to Mr. Rideau's journalistic work as proof of his transformation. As editor of The Angolite, a prison newspaper, Mr. Rideau won the George Polk Award, one of journalism's highest honors. "The Farm: Angola, U.S.A.," a documentary he co-directed, was nominated for an Academy Award.

Mr. Bryant, the prosecutor, said Mr. Rideau's achievements were irrelevant. "Rideau's actions were driven by greed," Mr. Bryant said, referring to the robbery. "It's not like he's been some sort of civil rights pioneer. He's a crook."

Mr. Bryant said the prosecution had been at a disadvantage throughout the trial.

"It's very difficult to try a case that's 44 years old," he said. "We had 13 witnesses who were unavailable, including the two eyewitnesses, and we had to present them by reading transcripts." One of the survivors of the crime died in 1988, and the other was too ill to attend the trial.

Mr. Rideau said yesterday that he had not dared make plans for what he would do as a free man. The pardon board recommended clemency four times, he said, but governors rejected each recommendation.

"When you've been turned down and ridden that hope train for so long and keep getting knocked back," he said, "you stop making plans."

He declined to say where he planned to live. "Undisclosed location," he said.

Then he started to collect his thoughts.

"I'll be 63 in about three more weeks," he said. "I'm walking around in sweatpants. Most people my age are retired, and I have no health insurance, no pension, no Social Security. I've got to start producing. I've got to get a job. I'd like to write. I've got so much to say. I'm going to continue, to the extent that I can, to be a journalist."


Justice Prevails In Louisiana: Rideau Is Free

January 15, 2005

(Lake Charles, LA) Wilbert Rideau, acclaimed as America's most rehabilitated prisoner, walked out of a Lake Charles, Calcasieu Parish jail today, a free man after 44 years of incarceration and four trials for killing a white female bank teller in 1961. The verdict was delivered by a jury of ten women and two men (four of whom were Black) selected and transported to Lake Charles for the trial from the Northeastern Louisiana city of Monroe (because of intense pre-trial publicity in Lake Charles). All three previous death sentence convictions were delivered by all-white, all-male juries from Calcasieu Parish, and overturned by federal courts as unconstitutional.

"This was not a case about innocence," said Theodore M. Shaw, Director-Counsel and President of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF). "It was about fairness and redemption--fairness, because even the guilty are entitled to a trial untainted by racial discrimination and misconduct, and redemption, because in a real sense the teenager who committed the tragic crime died while incarcerated for 44 years and was reborn as the man who paid the price and struggled for redemption. Wilbert Rideau's case goes to the core of the nature of our criminal justice system--to issues of fairness, punishment and rehabilitation."

LDF has represented Rideau since 1998 and won the December 2000 ruling by a federal appeals court, which found that purposeful racial discrimination had tainted the grand jury process for his third trial. The State of Louisiana was ordered either to free Rideau or retry him in a constitutional manner. It opted to retry him for a fourth time.

"We are overjoyed that this jury finally saw the truth in this case and issued a just verdict that was responsive to the facts and embodied the reality of what happened on February 16, 1961," said LDF Assistant Counsel Vanita Gupta.

Upon his release, an emotional Rideau expressed "remorse and deep sympathy to the families of the victims and the community of Calcasieu for their suffering," regrets that he has not been allowed to personally deliver for the past four decades.

Rideau was 19 years old at the time he was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white male jury for the 1961 killing of a white female bank teller following a bank robbery, a crime that he has never denied committing. The United States Supreme Court overturned his conviction, calling the trial proceedings a kangaroo court because the trial court refused to move the trial after the sheriff allowed a local television station to secretly record an interrogation session and repeatedly air the tape on the evening news. The local news station in the months leading up to this trial again repeatedly broadcast the same tape.

In 1969, a federal court overturned a second conviction and death sentence returned by an all-white male jury because the prosecution unnecessarily removed numerous qualified jurors who said they would be hesitant --- but not completely unwilling --- to impose the death penalty. In 1973, Rideau's third death sentence, from his 1970 retrial, was overturned by the Louisiana Supreme Court after the U.S. Supreme Court had struck down the death penalty as then administered in this country, in Furman v. Georgia, a case won by LDF attorneys.

While incarcerated in one of America's toughest prisons, Rideau educated himself, and became an award-winning journalist, documentary filmmaker, and model prisoner. For 25 years he was the editor of the Angolite, the official news magazine of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where he earned it a national reputation. In 1993, Life Magazine declared Rideau "The Most Rehabilitated Prisoner in America." He was often released by Louisiana prison officials to participate in public discussions and even appeared on national television with the late U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger.

"We felt a great sense of responsibility in this case because had we lost and Rideau returned to prison, the inescapable message to those incarcerated was that whatever you do, it doesn't matter," said George Kendall, lead counsel from the New York law firm Holland and Knight. "We thought that if we could free Rideau, it would provide hope for those in prison who genuinely work to redeem themselves."

In the time that Rideau has been incarcerated, more than 700 other prisoners convicted of murder have been released from Angola State Prison. Many did not serve as much as 20 years in prison, and only a handful has served more than 30.

Today's jury found Rideau guilty of manslaughter and not murder, which permitted his immediate release for time served. The maximum sentence for a manslaughter conviction in Louisiana is 21 years. A murder conviction would have allowed the State to continue his incarceration for the rest of his life.

Rideau was represented at trial by former LDF Assistant Counsel George Kendall, now with Holland and Knight; Julian Murray, one of Louisiana's top defense attorneys; Ron Ware, local counsel and Calcasieu Parish's public defender; LDF Assistant Counsel Vanita Gupta; and Parisa Dehghani-Tafti of Holland and Knight. LDF board member Johnnie Cochran, Jr. was also counsel on the case.


With Little Evidence, 4th Trial Opens in '61 Killing

By Adam Liptack - The New York Times

January 11, 2005

LAKE CHARLES, La., Jan. 10 - Wilbert Rideau went on trial on Monday for the fourth time for a killing that has already cost him 44 years in prison.

All-white, all-male juries convicted him of murder and sentenced him to death in 1961, 1964 and 1970. Each time, appeals courts eventually threw out the verdicts, citing misconduct by the government.

Now, prosecutors are trying once again to obtain a conviction against Mr. Rideau, one that will stick.

But the passage of almost half a century presents difficulties. So many of the original witnesses are dead, for instance, that prosecutors have asked stand-ins to play the part of 13 witnesses, reading their original testimony to the jury.

Rick Bryant, the district attorney here, addressed the jurors on Monday with a version of events that is largely undisputed. "Most of you sitting here today probably weren't even born in February 1961," he said.

Mr. Rideau, then a 19-year-old black porter at Halpern's Fabric Shop, walked a few buildings over to the Gulf National Bank and robbed it of $14,000 on Feb. 16 of that year. He forced three of the bank's employees, all white, into a teller's sedan.

They drove to a gravel lane near a bayou on the edge of town, where Mr. Rideau shot all three of them. Jay Hickman, the bank's manager, took a bullet in the arm but managed to escape by jumping into the swamp. Dora McCain, a teller, was shot in the neck and lay still, feigning death. But Mr. Rideau caught another teller, Julia Ferguson. He stabbed her in the heart and slit her throat.

Almost nothing tangible remains of those events so long ago. The fabric shop is gone; so is the bank. The gravel lane is now an on-ramp to Interstate 10. Much of the evidence is lost, and most witnesses are dead.

Mr. Rideau, now 62, is transformed, too. He has, from prison, become an acclaimed journalist and documentary filmmaker.

But the community's rage lives on in this racially divided oil and gambling town near the Texas border. "It's ferocious, the way we hold on to this episode," said the Rev. J. L. Franklin, a black pastor, who had come to the courthouse to see the State of Louisiana make its case.

Mr. Rideau has never denied killing Ms. Ferguson. Many whites here say he should have been executed long ago. Many blacks say Mr. Rideau has paid his debt many times over and would have been released years ago had his victims not been white and had he not achieved a measure of fame in the meantime. Until the 1970's, people sentenced to life in Louisiana - which is what prosecutors now seek for Mr. Rideau - were generally released after serving 10 years and 6 months.

On Monday, the jury heard from Mr. Hickman, the bank manager, but only in a sense: he died in 1988. A local radio announcer, Gary Shannon, stood in for him.

"Mr. Shannon will be playing the part of Mr. Hickman," Judge David Ritchie told the jury, as though announcing an understudy.

Reading from the 1970 trial transcript, Mr. Bryant asked the questions, and Mr. Shannon answered, in a deep, rich voice. The exchange had the quality of a book on tape or a radio drama, and was strangely compelling.

Mr. Shannon explained why the three employees had not tried to flee as they drove slowly through town.

"We believed him when he said cooperation would get us free," Mr. Shannon said, quoting Mr. Hickman. "It was more a hope than a belief. It was more of a hope. You cling to hope."

Jurors could not gauge Mr. Hickman's credibility through Mr. Shannon, and Mr. Rideau's current lawyers could not cross-examine him.

The reading of earlier testimony from an unavailable witness or two at a later trial is not particularly unusual, and the law allows it so long as there was an opportunity to cross-examine when the original testimony was taken. But Mr. Rideau's trial may set some sort of record, because Mr. Bryant said in his opening statement that he intended to present 13 witnesses that way.

Mr. Bryant is not seeking the death penalty this time. But he does not want Mr. Rideau ever to taste freedom, either.

"That man," he said during his opening statement, "committed the murder of Julia Ferguson." Mr. Rideau, wiry, wary and very alert, looked on attentively.

The jury that Mr. Bryant addressed is roughly representative of Calcasieu Parish's racial mix - eight whites, three blacks and a woman of mixed race - but it is not from here. Jurors were selected last week in Monroe, in northern Louisiana, in deference to the passions the case continues to arouse.

The defense strategy is complex. Appeals courts have turned back efforts to have the case dismissed outright, rejecting defense arguments contending stale evidence, double jeopardy and prosecutorial vindictiveness.

The jury is not meant to hear about the earlier trials. In small and subtle ways, Mr. Rideau's lawyers will try to suggest that prosecutors have the wrong man - not in the usual sense, but in that Mr. Rideau, they say, has changed so completely that he bears little resemblance to the hapless teenage bank robber.

As editor of The Angolite, a prison newspaper, Mr. Rideau has won the George Polk Award, one of journalism's highest honors. A documentary that he co-directed was nominated for an Academy Award. He has been a correspondent for National Public Radio and has appeared on ABC's "Nightline" to discuss criminal justice with Chief Justice Warren Burger of the Supreme Court.

For a time, he made hundreds of public appearances to talk about the criminal justice system, often accompanied by a single unarmed guard. Four pardon boards have recommended clemency, but governors have rejected each recommendation.

Judge Ritchie has indicated that he will exclude most of that evidence. Still, said Stuart P. Green, a law professor at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, the essence of Mr. Rideau's defense will be to ask the jury to ignore the law "through some kind of jury nullification."

Mr. Rideau's lawyers must walk a fine line. One of them, George H. Kendall, a lawyer with Holland & Knight in New York, made a series of concessions on Monday morning. "Let me tell you right now," he said, "Mr. Rideau is responsible for the death of Julia Ferguson."

Mr. Kendall took issue with only a few details in the prosecution's version of events. Mr. Rideau shot the bank employees as they fled, not after lining them up, he said. And Mr. Kendall disputed something Ms. McCain said she heard Mr. Rideau say moments before he slit Ms. Ferguson's throat.

"Don't worry," Mr. Rideau said to Ms. Ferguson as she pleaded for her life, according to Ms. McCain's testimony at the 1970 trial. "It'll be cool and quick."

Ms. McCain is alive but is apparently too ill to testify. Her earlier testimony will probably be read to the jury, lawyers involved in the case said."This crime occurred a long time ago, in a different time," Mr. Kendall told the jury.

He urged the jury to convict his client of manslaughter, not murder, saying that Mr. Rideau's acts were those of a rash teenager caught up in a bank robbery gone wrong, not of a premeditated murderer. He did not tell them that the maximum term for manslaughter in 1961 was 21 years. A manslaughter conviction would almost certainly mean his client's prompt release.


U.S. Supreme Court

RIDEAU v. LOUISIANA, 373 U.S. 723 (1963)

373 U.S. 723



No. 630.
Argued April 29, 1963.
Decided June 3, 1963.

A few hours after a man robbed a bank in Lake Charles, La., kidnapped three of the bank's employees and killed one of them, petitioner was arrested and lodged in the Parish Jail. The next morning a motion picture film with a sound track was made of an "interview" in the Jail between petitioner and the Sheriff of the Parish. This "interview" lasted approximately 20 minutes and consisted of interrogation by the Sheriff and admissions by petitioner that he had perpetrated the bank robbery, kidnapping, and murder. Later the same day and on the succeeding two days, the filmed "interview" was broadcast over the local television station and was seen and heard by many people in the Parish. Subsequently, petitioner was arraigned on charges of armed robbery, kidnapping, and murder, and two lawyers were appointed to represent him. They promptly filed a motion for change of venue; but this was denied and petitioner was convicted in the trial court of the Parish and sentenced to death on the murder charge. Held: It was a denial of due process of law to refuse the request for a change of venue after the people of the Parish had been exposed repeatedly and in depth to the spectacle of the petitioner personally confessing in detail to the crimes with which he was later to be charged. Pp. 723-727.

242 La. 431, 137 So.2d 283, reversed.

Fred H. Sievert, Jr. argued the cause and filed a brief for petitioner.

Frank Salter argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Jack P. F. Gremillion, Attorney General of Louisiana, and Robert S. Link, Jr., John E. Jackson, Jr. and M. E. Culligan, Assistant Attorneys General.

MR. JUSTICE STEWART delivered the opinion of the Court.

On the evening of February 16, 1961, a man robbed a bank in Lake Charles, Louisiana, kidnapped three of the bank's employees, and killed one of them. A few hours later the petitioner, Wilbert Rideau, was apprehended by the police and lodged in the Calcasieu Parish jail in Lake Charles. The next morning a moving picture film with a sound track was made of an "interview" in the jail between Rideau and the Sheriff of Calcasieu Parish. This "interview" lasted approximately 20 minutes. It consisted of interrogation by the sheriff and admissions by Rideau that he had perpetrated the bank robbery, kidnapping, and murder. Later the same day the filmed "interview" was broadcast over a television station in Lake Charles, and some 24,000 people in the community saw and heard it on television. The sound film was again shown on television the next day to an estimated audience of 53,000 people. The following day the film was again broadcast by the same television station, and this time approximately 29,000 people saw and heard the "interview" on their television sets. Calcasieu Parish has a population of approximately 150,000 people.

Some two weeks later, Rideau was arraigned on charges of armed robbery, kidnapping, and murder, and two lawyers were appointed to represent him. His lawyers promptly filed a motion for a change of venue, on the ground that it would deprive Rideau of rights guaranteed to him by the United States Constitution to force him to trial in Calcasieu Parish after the three television broadcasts there of his "interview" with the sheriff. 1 After a hearing, the motion for change of venue was denied, and Rideau was accordingly convicted and sentenced to death on the murder charge in the Calcasieu Parish trial court.

Three members of the jury which convicted him had stated on voir dire that they had seen and heard Rideau's televised "interview" with the sheriff on at least one occasion. Two members of the jury were deputy sheriffs of Calcasieu Parish. Rideau's counsel had requested that these jurors be excused for cause, having exhausted all of their peremptory challenges, but these challenges for cause had been denied by the trial judge. The judgment of conviction was affirmed by the Supreme Court of Louisiana, 242 La. 431, 137 So.2d 283, and the case is here on a writ of certiorari, 371 U.S. 919 .

The record in this case contains as an exhibit the sound film which was broadcast. What the people of Calcasieu Parish saw on their television sets was Rideau, in jail, flanked by the sheriff and two state troopers, admitting in detail the commission of the robbery, kidnapping, and murder, in response to leading questions by the sheriff. 2 The record fails to show whose idea it was to make the sound film, and broadcast it over the local television station, but we know from the conceded circumstances that the plan was carried out with the active cooperation and participation of the local law enforcement officers. And certainly no one has suggested that it was Rideau's idea, or even that he was aware of what was going on when the sound film was being made.

In the view we take of this case, the question of who originally initiated the idea of the televised interview is, in any event, a basically irrelevant detail. For we hold that it was a denial of due process of law to refuse the request for a change of venue, after the people of Calcasieu Parish had been exposed repeatedly and in depth to the spectacle of Rideau personally confessing in detail to the crimes with which he was later to be charged. For anyone who has ever watched television the conclusion cannot be avoided that this spectacle, to the tens of thousands of people who saw and heard it, in a very real sense was Rideau's trial - at which he pleaded guilty to murder. Any subsequent court proceedings in a community so pervasively exposed to such a spectacle could be but a hollow formality.

In Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 , this Court set aside murder convictions secured in a state trial with all the formalities of fair procedures, based upon "free and voluntary confessions" which in fact had been preceded by grossly brutal kangaroo court proceedings while the defendants were held in jail without counsel. As Chief Justice Hughes wrote in that case, "The State is free to regulate the procedure of its courts in accordance with its own conceptions of policy . . . . [But] it does not follow that it may substitute trial by ordeal." 297 U.S., at 285 . Cf. White v. Texas, 310 U.S. 530 . That was almost a generation ago, in an era before the onrush of an electronic age.

The case now before us does not involve physical brutality. The kangaroo court proceedings in this case involved a more subtle but no less real deprivation of due process of law. Under our Constitution's guarantee of due process, a person accused of committing a crime is vouchsafed basic minimal rights. Among these are the right to counsel, 3 the right to plead not guilty, and the right to be tried in a courtroom presided over by a judge. Yet in this case the people of Calcasieu Parish saw and heard, not once but three times, a "trial" of Rideau in a jail, presided over by a sheriff, where there was no lawyer to advise Rideau of his right to stand mute.

The record shows that such a thing as this never took place before in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana. 4 Whether it has occurred elsewhere, we do not know. But we do not hesitate to hold, without pausing to examine a particularized transcript of the voir dire examination of the members of the jury, that due process of law in this case required a trial before a jury drawn from a community of people who had not seen and heard Rideau's televised "interview" "Due process of law, preserved for all by our Constitution, commands that no such practice as that disclosed by this record shall send any accused to his death." Chambers v. Florida, 309 U.S. 227, 241 .



[ Footnote 1 ] The motion stated: "That to require the Defendant to be tried on the charges which have been preferred against him in the Parish of Calcasieu, would be a travesty of justice and would be a violation to the Defendant's rights for a fair and impartial trial, which is guaranteed to every person accused of having committed a crime by the Constitution of the State of Louisiana and by the Constitution of the United States."

[ Footnote 2 ] The Supreme Court of Louisiana summarized the event as follows: "[O]n the morning of February 17, 1961, the defendant was interviewed by the sheriff, and the entire interview was filmed (with a sound track) and shown to the audience of television station KPLC-TV on three occasions. The showings occurred prior to the arraignment of defendant on the murder charge. In this interview the accused admitted his part in the crime for which he was later indicted." 242 La., at 447, 137 So.2d, at 289.

[ Footnote 3 ] Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 .

[ Footnote 4 ] "Q. Mr. Mazilly, you have been in police work roughly 21 years? "A. Yes, sir. "Q. Were you in court yesterday at the time a sound on film picture was shown to the court which had been shown on KPLC-TV encompassing an interview between Sheriff Reid and Rideau? "A. I was. "Q. In all of your 21 years, do you know of any similar case in this parish or Southwest Louisiana where a man charged with a capital crime was allowed - that pictures were made of him and the general public was shown the pictures and a sound track in which he confessed to a capital crime? . . . . . . "A. No, sir."

MR. JUSTICE CLARK, with whom MR. JUSTICE HARLAN joins, dissenting.

On the evening of February 16, 1961, the petitioner, Wilbert Rideau, was arrested and confined in the Calcasieu Parish jail in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The arrest arose out of a bank robbery and a subsequent kidnapping and homicide. On the night of his arrest petitioner made detailed oral and written confessions to the crimes, and on the following morning a sound film was made of an interview between the sheriff and petitioner in which he again admitted commission of the crimes. The film was broadcast on a local television station on February 17, 18, and 19, 1961.

On March 3, 1961, petitioner was arraigned on charges of armed robbery, kidnapping and murder. As required under the law of Louisiana, he pleaded not guilty to the two capital crimes, but he entered a plea of guilty to the charge of armed robbery. Counsel were appointed immediately, and they requested permission to withdraw the plea of guilty to armed robbery, which motion was granted. They then filed a motion to quash, and the State was required to elect under which count it wished to proceed. The State elected the murder count, and the trial was set for April 10, 1961.

The defense moved for a change of venue, which was denied after hearing. Thereupon a jury was empaneled and petitioner was tried and convicted of murder. The Louisiana Supreme Court affirmed and this Court now reverses that judgment, holding that the denial of petitioner's motion for change of venue was a deprivation of due process of law. Having searched the Court's opinion and the record, I am unable to find any deprivation of due process under the Fourteenth Amendment and I therefore dissent.

At the outset, two matters should be clearly established. First, I do not believe it within the province of law enforcement officers actively to cooperate in activities which tend to make more difficult the achievement of impartial justice. Therefore, if this case arose in a federal court, over which we exercise supervisory powers, I would vote to reverse the judgment before us. Cf. Marshall v. United States, 360 U.S. 310 (1959). It goes without saying, however, that there is a very significant difference between matters within the scope of our supervisory power and matters which reach the level of constitutional dimension. See, e. g., Stein v. New York, 346 U.S. 156, 187 (1953); Brown v. Allen, 344 U.S. 443, 476 (1953).

Second, I agree fully with the Court that one is deprived of due process of law when he is tried in an environment so permeated with hostility that judicial proceedings can be "but a hollow formality." This proposition, and my position with regard thereto, are established in Irvin v. Dowd, 366 U.S. 717 (1961). At this point I must part company with the Court, however, not so much because it deviates from the principles established in Irvin but because it applies no principles at all. It simply stops at this point, without establishing any substantial nexus between the televised "interview" and petitioner's trial, which occurred almost two months later. Unless the adverse publicity is shown by the record to have fatally infected the trial, there is simply no basis for the Court's inference that the publicity, epitomized by the televised interview, called up some informal and illicit analogy to res judicata, making petitioner's trial a meaningless formality. See Beck v. Washington, 369 U.S. 541 (1962).

That the Court apparently does not realize the necessity of establishing this nexus is illustrated by its reliance on Brown v. Mississippi, 297 U.S. 278 (1936). That case and its progeny * stand for the proposition that one may not constitutionally be convicted of a crime upon evidence including a confession involuntarily made. There can be no more clear nexus between the action of state officials before trial and the trial itself than when the results of that action are admitted in evidence at the trial. Here, of course, neither the filmed interview nor any transcript of it was shown or read to the jury. While the oral and written confessions made on the night of the arrest were admitted in evidence, the only argument for their exclusion made by the petitioner is that they were obtained at an interrogation when he had not been advised of his right to counsel and did not have counsel present. That argument is clearly answered by our decisions in Cicenia v. Lagay, 357 U.S. 504 (1958), and Crooker v. California, 357 U.S. 433 (1958).

The fact that the adverse publicity was not evidence in the case is not controlling, however, for we have recognized that such matter may, in unusual circumstances, fatally infect a trial when it enters the courtroom indelibly imbedded in the minds of the jurors. We found such a situation in Irvin v. Dowd, supra, where the continuous wave of publicity concerning the offense and the past record of the petitioner so permeated the area where he was tried that

    "[a]n examination of the 2,783-page voir dire record shows that 370 prospective jurors or almost 90% of those examined on the point . . . entertained some opinion as to guilt - ranging in intensity from mere suspicion to absolute certainty. A number admitted that, if they were in the accused's place in the dock and he in theirs on the jury with their opinions, they would not want him on a jury." 366 U.S., at 727 .

More important, of the 12 jurors finally placed in the jury box eight thought petitioner Irvin to be guilty. In view of those circumstances we unanimously reversed the judgment in that case, with the caveat that

    "It is not required, however, that the jurors be totally ignorant of the facts and issues involved. In these days of swift, widespread and diverse methods of communication, an important case can be expected to arouse the interest of the public in the vicinity, and scarcely any of those best qualified to serve as jurors will not have formed some impression or opinion as to the merits of the case. This is particularly true in criminal cases. To hold that the mere existence of any preconceived notion as to the guilt or innocence of an accused, without more, is sufficient to rebut the presumption of a prospective juror's impartiality would be to establish an impossible standard." Id., at 722-723.

Thus, in Irvin, because of the complete permeation, imbedding opinions of guilt in the minds of 90% of the veniremen and two-thirds of the actual jury, we held that petitioner had been deprived of his constitutional right to an impartial tribunal. Compare Beck v. Washington, supra. We now face the question whether this is such a situation and, for that determination, we must examine the publicity involved, the hearing on the motion for change of venue and the record of the voir dire examination.

Initially, we face an obstacle in determining the pervasiveness of the televised interview, since the circulation of a television program is less susceptible of determination than that of a newspaper. The figures quoted by the Court as representing the number of people who "saw and heard" the interview were given by the Program Director of the television station and represented the typical number of viewers at the times when the interview was broadcast, as determined by a rating service which had conducted a sampling some months previous to the broadcasts. The Director testified that those figures represented "an approximate number and, as I say, there is no way you can prove this because communications is an intangible business . . . ." Of course, assuming arguendo the accuracy of the figures given, there is no way of determining whether those figures are mutually inclusive or whether they represent different viewers on the different occasions. The record does give a more tangible indication of the effect of the publicity, however, in the hearing on the motion for change of venue. At that hearing five witnesses testified that, in their opinions, petitioner could not get a fair trial in the parish. Twenty-four witnesses testified that, in their opinions, petitioner could get a fair trial and a stipulation was entered that five more witnesses would testify that he could get a fair trial in the parish.

The most crucial evidence relates to the composition of the 12-man jury. Of the 12 members of the panel only three had seen the televised interview which had been shown almost two months before the trial. The petitioner does not assert, and the record does not show, that these three testified to holding opinions of petitioner's guilt. They did testify, however, that they

    "could lay aside any opinion, give the defendant the presumption of innocence as provided by law, base their decision solely upon the evidence, and apply the law as given by the court. As the judge stated in his per curiam: `They testified they could do so notwithstanding anything they may have heard, seen or read of the case.'" 242 La. 431, 462, 137 So.2d 283, 295.

Further, two members of the jury held honorary Deputy Sheriff's commissions from the Sheriff's department. Neither of these men was in any way connected with the department as a deputy, neither had ever made any arrests and neither had ever received any pay from the department. They both testified that they used the honorary commissions only for their convenience. They testified that these honorary commissions would not affect their ability to serve as jurors in any way, and the trial judge concluded that this tenuous relationship with the State did not destroy their qualifications to serve. Cf. Frazier v. United States, 335 U.S. 497 (1948); United States v. Wood, 299 U.S. 123 (1936).

The right to a trial before a fair and impartial tribunal "is a basic requirement of due process," In re Murchison, 349 U.S. 133, 136 (1955), and must be safeguarded with vigilance. As we recognized in Irvin, however, it is an impossible standard to require that tribunal to be a laboratory, completely sterilized and freed from any external factors. The determination of impartiality, in which demeanor plays such an important part, is particularly within the province of the trial judge. And when the jurors testify that they can discount the influence of external factors and meet the standard imposed by the Fourteenth Amendment, that assurance is not lightly to be discarded. When the circumstances are unusually compelling, as in Irvin, the assurances may be discarded, but "it is not asking too much that the burden of showing essential unfairness be sustained by him who claims such injustice and seeks to have the result set aside . . . ." Adams v. United States ex rel. McCann, 317 U.S. 269, 281 (1942). Since the petitioner clearly has not met that burden, I would affirm the judgment before us.

[ Footnote * ] See Ritz, Twenty-five Years of State Criminal Confession Cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, 19 Wash & Lee L. Rev. 35 (1962).



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