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Town Split over Journalist's Retrial for '61 Murder

On a rainy night in 1961, Wilbert Rideau killed Julia Ferguson, a white bank teller in Lake Charles, La. Rideau was 19, a nearly illiterate African-American janitor living in a sharply segregated, small Southern town built on the backs of sawmills, slavery and oil.

Rideau has spent the last four decades in prison. During that time, he's become an award-winning journalist and advocate for prison reform. This week, he went on trial for murder for the fourth time, hoping a jury will set him free.

Rideau was tried twice for murder before 1970; each time, the conviction was overturned. The third conviction stuck -- until 2000, when an appellate court ordered the state to retry Rideau or release him. Rideau's attorneys are now hoping the jury will find him guilty of manslaughter, rather than first-degree murder, which would allow Rideau to be released for time served.

Rideau, 62, admits to killing Ferguson, but he says he's a different man now, and argues that he's paid for his crimes. Lake Charles remains divided, largely along racial lines, on whether justice would be served by his release.

Black people in town, and some whites, point out that Rideau has already served longer than any white man convicted of murder in Louisiana history. But those old enough to remember the crime have a hard time forgetting -- or forgiving. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.