This issue marks the first of a three-part series on crime, rehabilitation, redemption and forgiveness in Louisiana. In the next three weeks, we are exploring these themes by looking at the lives of three Louisiana natives. Two are convicted (and celebrated) killers. The third, a woman they never met, was a teenager when she survived an ordeal of kidnapping, rape and attempted murder. All three are published authors.
The two murderers are both graying in separate prisons. Wilbert Rideau, 59, and Billy Wayne Sinclair, 55, have served a total of 75 years in prison between them. Self-educated on Death Row, both inmates have become nationally recognized authors and prison journalists. In fact, The Columbia Journalism Review once called them the "Woodward and Bernstein of prison journalism."
Sinclair has served 35 years in prison for the 1965 murder of J. C. Bodden, a popular convenience store operator in Baton Rouge. With his wife, Jodie Sinclair, Sinclair has just published the book A Life in the Balance: the Billy Wayne Sinclair Story, an account of his life behind bars.
Rideau has served 40 years of a life sentence for murder during a 1961 bank robbery-kidnapping in Lake Charles. Sometime this year, he is expected to go on trial for the fourth time for that crime. The new trial is based on a revived appeal.
Both Rideau and Sinclair have long expressed remorse for their crimes. Both ask society for forgiveness and to free them as rehabilitated men. They are, however, not likely to soon forgive each other. Revelations of Sinclair's dual role as journalist and FBI informant in 1987 in the pardons-for-sale scandals ended both his tenure as a co-editor at the prison magazine The Angolite and severed his friendship with fellow Angolite editor Rideau, whom he once credited with saving his life in a Baton Rouge jail in 1965. Sinclair is currently incarcerated at "N-5," Louisiana's super-protective custody unit at the Wade Correctional Institute in Homer, near the Arkansas border.
Debbie Morris, 37, is the author of Forgiving the Dead Man Walking. The book is her autobiographical response to Dead Man Walking, the book authored by Sister Helen Prejean, a New Orleans nun and spiritual adviser to convicted killer Robert Lee Willie, who was executed in 1984 for murder. Willie and co-defendant Joseph Vaccaro were also convicted of kidnapping and raping Morris and of torturing and shooting her boyfriend during a three-state crime spree in 1980. Vaccaro is serving three life sentences at a federal penitentiary in Colorado. Morris hopes to visit him there. She also plans to visit Angola state prison in the fall with a prison ministry group.
"Crime victims and their families need to understand, our own healing is not contingent upon what happens to the perpetrator of that crime," she says. Morris preaches forgiving --without forgetting.