On a lazy afternoon in February 1961, Wilbert Rideau decided to rob a bank in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Rideau, a smart but impulsive eighth-grade dropout from a violent home, had counted on making a quick, clean getaway, just like the ones he’d seen in the movies, but his plans unraveled during the heist when a phone call to the bank revealed that the police were closing in. Rideau took three hostages, commandeered a car and, as darkness fell, got lost on the back roads outside town. At a bayou crossing the passengers bolted, and Rideau opened fire. Two survived and vanished into the night, but the third, a teller named Julia Ferguson, was wounded by the gunfire and then stabbed to death by Rideau with a hunting knife. A 19-year-old black man had killed a white woman. In no time, Rideau was under arrest. Outside the jail, a mob formed. “Hang that nigger,” a voice called out. But the officers held their man, confident that justice would be swift and severe. “It was a good little town back then,” a deputy sheriff later explained to a reporter. “Ever’body did their job. The prosecutors, the law enforcement…. You didn’t have to worry about lynching because they lynched ’em for you.” The trial, as Rideau recalls in his gripping memoir In the Place of Justice, was “merely a formality,” played out by white attorneys before a white judge and an all-white jury. “I was the only black in sight, a fly in a bowl of milk,” he writes. The place was Calcasieu Parish, at the height of the backlash against the civil rights movement, when Louisiana lawmakers had voted to close down the state’s public schools rather than integrate them. Rideau was guilty of terrible crimes—armed robbery, kidnapping and homicide—but the district attorney stretched and suppressed evidence to prove premeditation, a necessary condition for a capital conviction.
more from Robert Perkinson at The Nation here.