In the nation's bloodiest prison, Wilbert Rideau (search) became a thinking man, an award-winning journalist who has been called "the most rehabilitated inmate in America." Now, after more than 40 years behind bars, he is a free man.

Rideau, a black man convicted three times by all-white juries, walked free Saturday when a racially mixed jury found him guilty of a lesser charge of manslaughter.

A quietly jubilant Rideau savored his new freedom Sunday in Baton Rouge, relaxing at a friend's house and blinking in a world he left behind when John Kennedy was the new president and "whites only" signs still hung across the South.

"I'm still trying to wrap my mind around it," Rideau told The Associated Press in one of his first interviews since the verdict in his native Lake Charles. "Jail is so far distant. It's distant."

Rideau, 62, never denied that he killed Julia Ferguson (search) on Feb. 16, 1961, and shot two others after a botched robbery. Testifying for the first time in this trial, he said it was an act of panic.

Prosecutors, seeking a murder conviction and a life sentence, scoffed at Rideau's contention that although he killed Ferguson, he didn't murder her. But after deliberating for nearly six hours, the jury of eight whites and four blacks agreed with him that the crime was not planned or premeditated.

Since he has spent nearly 44 years in prison — more than double the 21-year maximum for manslaughter when the crime occurred — he was immediately released.

"It offers hope to the black community. It's a new day," said the Rev. J.L. Franklin of Lake Charles, who has led a minister's group that has pushed for years for Rideau's release.

After a celebration with his attorneys, he spent the night with his mother and sisters. Elsewhere in Lake Charles, a spontaneous celebration broke out at a crowded zydeco ball when news of Rideau's release emerged.

"Wilbert was just so elated," Franklin said. "We were all just extremely excited. And amazed that he is free. We were all very excited and Wilbert's talking about his projects."

Rideau was a janitor and eighth-grade dropout when he entered the notorious Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. Behind bars, he became a self-educated writer and helped expose the violence behind prison walls, elevating the prison magazine, The Angolite, to national acclaim.

He gained fame and numerous awards, co-directing the Oscar-nominated prison documentary "The Farm" and co-writing and narrating an award-winning National Public Radio documentary. Life magazine once called him "the most rehabilitated prisoner in America."

Jurors were barred from hearing about Rideau's accomplishments in prison.

Prosecutors "figured they would convict me on the case. The stuff that would get me the sympathy, they kept out," Rideau said Sunday. "Ironically, I got freed on the case. A lot of the `facts' turned out to be myths."

Rideau's fame also brought tension in Lake Charles, near the Texas line. Rideau left for Baton Rouge Sunday morning, and his supporters said they were worried for his safety because of the depth of feeling surrounding the case.

Don Hickman, whose father, branch manager Jay Hickman, was one of two people whom Rideau shot and left for dead, scoffed at the concern.

"These people here are not going to try to kill him," Hickman said. "I don't even know of any rednecks around here who would be dumb enough to do that."

Hickman, who attended every day of the trial, said he was disappointed in the verdict and that prosecutors "were just out-lawyered."

Rideau's lawyers contended Louisiana's 1960s-era climate of racial hostility — and three all-white, all-male juries — made it impossible to get a fair trial.

He was convicted and sentenced to death three times before the Supreme Court outlawed existing death penalty laws in the 1970s, commuting his sentence.

Then, in 2000, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (search) again overturned his conviction, this time because black people were excluded from the 1961 grand jury that indicted him. He was reindicted in 2001 by a mixed-race jury.

In his fourth trial, Rideau's defense sought a manslaughter verdict. Prosecutors wanted the jury to find him guilty of murder to ensure Rideau would end his days in jail, barring a pardon.

"The passage of time has made him older and hopefully wiser, but it certainly has not made him less guilty," Calcasieu Parish District Attorney Rick Bryant told the jury Saturday. "Time and age do not give you innocence."

But shortly before the jury was handed the case, Rideau's attorney Julian Murray suggested that racism had distorted the crime, keeping local passions inflamed.

"You have to understand that time, and then it comes together," Murray said. "You think they would hesitate to exaggerate the facts of the case, to get the result they wanted?"

The stabbing of Ferguson was "a terrible act, a criminal act, one for which he deserves great punishment, but not one for which he deserves to be locked up for the rest of his life," Murray said.

"He did a terrible thing, but it wasn't murder."