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Prison Journalists Clash Over Who Wrote What

January 07, 1990|MARY FOSTER | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW ORLEANS — Wilbert Rideau and Billy Wayne Sinclair, convicted murderers with a bent for writing, won fame in the late 1970s and early '80s with articles in the Louisiana State Penitentiary magazine The Angolite.

But the writings that concern them today include legal briefs filed in Sinclair's $100,000 federal lawsuit against Rideau, accusing him of plagiarism in a book he edited and of trying to damage Sinclair's journalistic reputation.

"Everything in this book was done properly," said Rideau, who still is editor of The Angolite. "I didn't claim to write anything I didn't.

"Neither I, nor anyone else, has tried to damage Billy's journalistic reputation. He did that to himself back in 1986, when he became an undercover agent for the FBI while he was working as a journalist."

Sinclair, 44, now jailed at the State Police Barracks in Baton Rouge, said that the lawsuit was a last resort. "The only thing I want is for the credit for my work to be protected and for Wilbert Rideau not to claim the things I did."

Sinclair's death sentence for a 1965 murder during a bungled holdup was commuted to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court threw out Louisiana's death penalty law. He left The Angolite in 1986 after going to the FBI when he was approached by a prison employee who tried to sell him a pardon. In the ensuing scandals, the head of the pardon board was sent to prison.

After he cooperated in the investigation, he was transferred out of Angola for his safety. He received a clemency recommendation from the pardon board, but Gov. Buddy Roemer, taking a hard line on crime, rejected it.

Rideau, 47, has been at Angola since he was condemned to die for a 1961 bank robbery in which he killed a teller by slitting her throat. His sentence also was commuted to life when the death penalty law was thrown out.

Sinclair's lawsuit centers on a University of Southwestern Louisiana text, "The Wall Is Strong: Corrections in Louisiana," which Rideau edited with Burk Foster, a professor, and another Angolite editor, Ron Wikberg. The textbook is a compilation of newspaper and magazine articles and papers by the school's Center for Criminal Justice Research. About half is from The Angolite.

Sinclair contends that four of the articles should have carried his byline.

Rideau acknowledged that one should have.

"He won the George Polk Award, the Silver Gavel Award from the American Bar Assn. in 1980 for 'A Prison Tragedy.' Leaving his name off it was an innocent mistake. Hell, my name was left off 'Sexual Jungle,' which I won the George Polk Award for. There are a lot of mistakes in the book. We had to put it together by phone and letters. It's not like we could take off and go to the printers every time we needed to."

No matter who wrote them, Rideau said, ownership may belong to the state.

"We're prisoners. We were sent to prison to work and to suffer. Billy was sentenced to hard labor. He got a break and was sent to The Angolite, but he was paid for that work just as if he had gone anywhere else. Can the guy who makes license plates claim they're his? Can the prisoner who picks cotton go to the warden and tell him how to use that cotton?"

The book is sold only at the university bookstore. At $26.95, it is not expected to make more than a few hundred dollars, Foster said. Even if it does make a profit, the money will go to the school.

Rideau said he gets nothing from it but satisfaction, tainted now by the suit, which he said reflects Sinclair's bitterness at being out of the limelight.

Meanwhile, The Angolite, which was a finalist for the Columbia School of Journalism 1989 National Magazine Award and, along with Barron's, received the American Bar Assn. award for journalism, has rebuilt its credibility, he said. "I have no war with Billy and I don't want one. I understand there has always been a certain resentment and jealousy on his part. It's sad when trying to be like someone turns to envy."

Sinclair said he has no envy, just worry about protecting his work.

"We were very close at one time. What Wilbert did for me when I was in jail was brought to the attention of a lot of people, and I'm very grateful. This has never been a personal vendetta on my part. He's the one that made it a vendetta. When I read that book, though, I realized the only way I can protect my work is to go to court."

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