LAKE CHARLES, La. - Forty-four years and three overturned convictions after he killed a bank teller on a lonely rural road, Wilbert Rideau took the stand Wednesday in hopes of winning his freedom by convincing jurors his actions fell short of murder.
Rideau, who became an award-winning journalist behind bars, has never denied his guilt. His defense team hopes his fourth jury issues a verdict no worse than manslaughter, making him eligible for release because of the time he has already served.
"You killed Julia Ferguson, didn't you?" defense attorney Julian Murray asked Rideau.
"Yes," he answered, in the silent, packed courtroom.
Rideau, 62, insisted the robbery-murder was unplanned, and took shape as he reflected, at 19, on his poverty and lack of prospects as a black man in segregated Lake Charles.
"To say I was unhappy is an understatement," Rideau said. "I was miserable, I was desperate for change. I felt trapped. I made the mistake of feeling sorry for myself. I felt I needed a new life. Go someplace, start all over. Different world, world where I might matter."
Under questioning from Murray, Rideau said nothing that had happened to him justified what he did to Ferguson in 1961.
Prosecutors say that despite the renown he has received as a journalist, Rideau is a cold-blooded killer undeserving of release. They used testimony from earlier trials and Rideau's own words in arguing for a fourth murder conviction and a life sentence.
Originally sentenced to death for Ferguson's murder, Rideau was spared in the 1970s when the Supreme Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional. Meanwhile, he made a name for himself as part of a team that earned critical acclaim for the state penitentiary's prison magazine, "The Angolite."
His first two convictions were overturned on appeal. His third stuck until 2000, when a federal court said he was entitled to a fourth trial because blacks were excluded from the grand jury that indicted him.
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.
Testimony in his latest trial included a witness' account of Rideau's alleged last words to Ferguson.
"Don't worry, it will be quick and cool," Dora McCain said she heard Rideau tell Ferguson before he stabbed her and cut her throat Feb. 16, 1961.
Also Wednesday, prosecutors showed jurors a 1981 television interview in which Rideau said he cut Ferguson's throat 20 years earlier because "I think I ran out of bullets."
Rideau went on to tell the interviewer that "the fact that I hated white people added an extra dimension to the offense. You're not particularly concerned about the humanity of people you hate."