BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Freed prison journalist Wilbert Rideau has filed for bankruptcy, saying he can’t pay the more than $126,000 in court costs from a trial that resulted in his release after 44 years behind bars.
The order to pay court costs is under appeal, but Mr. Rideau’s bankruptcy attorney said the threat of having to pay the sum called for a bankruptcy filing.
Mr. Rideau, 63, won freedom from a life prison sentence in January when a jury — the fourth to hear his murder case — found him guilty of a lesser charge of manslaughter in the 1961 death of a bank teller during a robbery. Mr. Rideau was released because the maximum penalty for manslaughter at the time of the crime was 21 years.
In ordering Mr. Rideau to pay court costs, the judge acknowledged that Mr. Rideau was broke but said he could reap a windfall by turning his life story into a book.
The judge compared the payment order with assessing costs to a person who expects a settlement from a pending civil suit.
Mr. Rideau’s lawyers called the payment order “punitive, excessive and discriminatory” and argued that the trial wouldn’t have even been necessary had the district attorney not rejected Mr. Rideau’s offer to plead guilty to manslaughter.
Bankruptcy attorney Gary McKenzie said a book proposal, so far, has generated nothing but some early curiosity from publishers. If Mr. Rideau’s bankruptcy petition is accepted, any future proceeds from a book would be protected, he said.
The Calcasieu Parish district attorney’s office accused Mr. Rideau of trying to dodge his public debt.
“We suspected that Mr. Rideau was going to try to take advantage of his notoriety, and I think it’s a crying shame that he’s trying to profit on his criminal act,” Assistant District Attorney Wayne Frey said.
But Mr. Rideau’s attorney says the former inmate, who is an award-winning writer and was a longtime editor of the Angolite prison magazine, has paid his debt to society.
“He doesn’t have a long working life ahead of him, he doesn’t have any savings, and he doesn’t qualify for Social Security because he’s been in prison almost his entire life,” Mr. McKenzie said.