NEW ORLEANS - Wilbert Rideau, the crusading jailhouse journalist acclaimed for his unflinching exposes of brutality behind bars, got his murder conviction thrown out by a federal appeals court Friday after nearly 40 years in prison.
A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that blacks were improperly excluded from the grand jury that indicted Rideau, a black man, in the 1961 slaying of a white bank teller.
The court said Rideau, 58, must be either retried in a reasonable amount of time - no more than six months, his lawyer argued - or set free.
Prosecutors acknowledged that getting another conviction would be difficult, if not impossible, but said they will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The prison would not make Rideau available for comment. His lawyer, Julian Murray, said Rideau had already heard about the ruling by the time he talked to him at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
''This is one of the first times I've ever talked to him when he was at a loss for words,'' Murray said. ''He was sorry it took 40 years to overturn a grand jury indictment that was the result of the apartheid system that existed in the '60s.''
In 1961, when he was 19, Rideau robbed a Lake Charles bank of $14,000, took three hostages and shot them they begged for their lives. Two lived; teller Julia Ferguson died. Only one black was among the 20 grand jurors.
Rideau arrived at Angola with an eighth-grade education and a death sentence. While waiting for his date in the electric chair, he taught himself to read and began writing. His sentence was changed to life in prison without parole after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Louisiana's death penalty in 1972.
Refused a job by the then all-white staff of the prison magazine, The Angolite, Rideau started his own publication, The Lifer, and began writing a weekly column for a group of black newspapers.
In 1976, he was named editor of The Angolite and transformed it from a mimeographed newsletter into a slick magazine that has won a string of awards.
Under Rideau and Billy Wayne Sinclair, who became co-editor in 1978, the magazine won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award. The two also won the George Polk Award in 1979 for articles about homosexual rape and a killing in prison.
Other articles dealt with inmate suicides, prison riots, prisoner rights, executions and prison sports.
Rideau also was a co-director of the 1998 documentary ''The Farm,'' which was nominated for an Oscar and won a prize at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
Rideau billed himself as ''The Most Rehabilitated Prisoner in America.''
''I didn't want a criminal act to be the final definition of me,'' he said in a 1999 Associated Press interview. ''I picked up a pen and tried to do something good. It allowed me to weave meaning into what would have been a meaningless existence. It also gave me a chance to try to make amends.''
Rideau had argued since 1967 that blacks were kept off the grand jury, but he did not file his latest challenge until 1994. His lawyer said Rideau had turned his focus to rehabilitation, hoping for a pardon after exhausting a number of appeals.
''When it became clear that a pardon wouldn't work for him, we decided to look at legal issues,'' Murray said. They discovered the grand jury issue ''still sitting there in the courts.''
U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola rejected Rideau's plea for freedom last year, saying he had prejudiced the prosecution's chances in any retrial by waiting so long to appeal. Most of the witnesses are dead, the judges are dead, the murder weapons cannot be found and grand jury records from the time have been discarded, Polozola said.
The judge also said there was no evidence that the grand jury list was compiled to systematically exclude blacks. The Louisiana Supreme Court also ruled, twice, that there was no such evidence.
But the federal appeals court said other federal circuits have allowed claims to be heard as much as 42 years later. And it said the passage of time alone ''is never sufficient to constitute prejudice.''
Rideau had gained Pardon Board recommendations for release since 1984, but a series of governors refused, including Edwin Edwards, who pardoned 89 murderers before leaving office in 1996. Supporters have said Rideau is the only one of 31 murderers sent to Angola in 1962 who has not been freed.
''If all those people were still in prison, I'd say what's happened to me is fair,'' Rideau said last year. ''But they aren't. I get postcards from a former inmate who killed four people. He's out and I'm not.''