- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005

Wilbert Rideau, a convicted killer, was spared the electric chair thanks to a 1972 Supreme Court decision invalidating capital punishment as then applied. That outcome gratified death-penalty opponents, a group that includes me.

But this week, Rideau walked out of a Louisiana prison, an outcome that should disturb death-penalty opponents. His release will strengthen support for capital punishment by demonstrating the alternative can’t be trusted.

The alternative, of course, is life imprisonment without parole. Most critics of capital punishment understand permanent confinement punishes the killer, prevents him from taking other lives and deters others from killing. Many Americans who support the death penalty would actually be content with something else: Though 73 percent say they favor it for murder, the figure drops to just 53 percent if the alternative penalty is life without chance of parole.

So why does capital punishment remain popular? One big reason is that many Americans don’t believe life without parole really means life without parole. They fear that some way or another, by hook or by crook, some vicious killers will be allowed to walk the streets as free men. Wilbert Rideau stands as proof they’re right.

Rideau, who has gained considerable recognition as a prison journalist, doesn’t deny he’s a killer. In 1961, he robbed a bank in Lake Charles, La., kidnapped three employees and made one of them drive the group to a remote spot. There, he shot them all. Two survived. The third, Julia Ferguson, he stabbed to death with a hunting knife. Rideau was convicted of her murder and sentenced to die.

But the courts overturned three convictions, though never on grounds of innocence. And finally, in a fourth trial 44 years later, a jury found him guilty only of manslaughter. Since he had already served more than the maximum term for that crime, he was released.

From the news coverage, you would think he had been exonerated. The headline in the New York Times said, “Freed after 44 years, a prison journalist looks back and ahead.” In USA Today, it was “La. prison journalist freed after 44 years.” Notice: Not “killer freed,” but “prison journalist freed.”

No one wanted to get all hung up on Rideau having deliberately snuffed out one life and tried to end two others. Everyone was too busy feeling good about the new freedom of “the most rehabilitated prisoner in America,” as he has been called.

Rideau, who is black, was undoubtedly ill-treated by the white-controlled criminal justice of the old, segregationist Louisiana. But Jim Crow didn’t thrust a knife into Julia Ferguson’s heart.

Forcing a retrial put the prosecution in an almost impossible position. “It’s very difficult to try a case that’s 44 years old,” said District Attorney Rick Bryant. “We had 13 witnesses who were unavailable, including the two eyewitnesses, and we had to present them by reading transcripts.” One of the two he tried to kill died in 1988, and the other was too sick to attend.

Rideau and his supporters blamed his conviction on the racism that once pervaded the South — as if that were an explanation for robbing and killing innocent people. “This jury,” Rideau said afterward, “reached back and pulled a judgment out of the racial clutches I was long in.” A local pastor objected to the very idea of holding him responsible for his actions. “It’s a judicial lynching,” said Rev. J.L. Franklin. “You spend millions on a 40-year-old case. It’s ludicrous.”

Not to the family of the dead woman, I suspect. The implication is that after a while, we should all be willing to forgive a man for deliberately killing someone who had done him no harm. At this point, apparently, Wilbert Rideau’s life is more important than Julia Ferguson’s.

That’s the sort of attitude that drives supporters of the death penalty — and some of us opponents — up the wall. It fosters support for state-sponsored executions by suggesting we, as a society, lack the resolve to make life sentences actually last for life. But anyone who truly believes in abolishing the death penalty has to give equal priority to making sure the killers spared execution will be locked up for good.

The death penalty’s disadvantage is that if inflicted on an innocent person, it can’t be undone. But it has an advantage: You also can’t undo it when you get a guilty one.

Steve Chapman is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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