In 2007, Wilbert became a Soros Media Fellow. Now, in addition to writing, lecturing, and consulting, Wilbert works to improve and reform the justice and prison systems through pro bono public service. He sits on the Board of Directors of the Capital Appeals Project of Louisiana, which is responsible for the direct appeal of every death sentence imposed in the state, and of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, which concerns itself with the treatment of our youth in the judicial system and penal facilities in the state. He is also a member of the Board of Advisors for Solitary Watch, a group dedicated to monitoring and minimizing the use of solitary confinement, and is on the Board of Patrons for Amicus, a small legal charity in the U.K. that provides representation for those facing the death penalty in the U.S.
photo courtesy of Wilbert Rideau
After his 1973 release from death row, Wilbert began his career as a journalist by writing a column for a chain of black weeklies and freelancing to mainstream media. In 1976, Warden C. Paul Phelps named him editor of The Angolite, a position he held for the next 25 years. On a handshake between the two men, it became the nation's only uncensored prison publication, and remained so for two decades.
A mixed-race, mixed-gender jury, reviewing new evidence at the 2005 trial, acquitted Wilbert of murder and found him guilty of manslaughter. The judge gave him the maximum sentence: 21 years. Since Wilbert had already served nearly 44 years, he was freed immediately after the verdict -- on Martin Luther King Jr's birthday.
Angolite editor Wilbert Rideau, 1976,
with feathered friend
Besides winning countless journalism and legal awards, the magazine uncovered and reported on problems such as sexual violence, inadequate medical care, and longtermers lost in the system, which helped reform practices and policies.
In the 1990s, Wilbert branched out into broadcast journalism, becoming a correspondent for NPR and collaborating with outside documentarians to create award-winning features for radio, television, and film.
He was sent to death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1962. In 1963 the U.S. Supreme Court called his trial "kangaroo court proceedings" and threw out his conviction. He was retried twice, again by all-white males juries, and sentenced to death; those convictions were also thrown out by higher courts. In all, Wilbert spent 12 years in various forms of solitary confinement, on death row and its equivalent in parish jails, as he waited out appeals of his convictions.
In 2000, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit threw out Wilbert's murder conviction and granted him a new trial. Prosecutors in Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana, re-indicted him for the 1961 crime, making his the oldest criminal prosecution in American history. A dream team of some of America's best lawyers -- all working pro bono -- aided by an army of volunteer law students, reinvestigated the 1961 case.
In 1961, at age 19, in the aftermath of a botched bank robbery, Wilbert killed teller Julia Ferguson in a moment of panic. A white mob quickly gathered at the site of his arrest and again at the jail, where the sheriff had to spirit him in through the back door. Two real estate lawyers were appointed by the court to represent Wilbert. They mounted no defense, and he was summarily convicted of murder by a jury of twelve white men.