Sunday, March 31, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Convict Returns To Different World After 37 Years


MOREESE BICKHAM went to prison when everybody liked Ike and trips to the moon were the stuff of science fiction. He came out in January to a world where money spits out of sidewalk machines and a black man can run for president.

OAKLAND, Calif. - Five thousand years after he lived and died, the "Ice Man" was pried from a glacier and thrust under the lights of a 20th-century laboratory.

After 37 years in prison, 14 of them on death row, Moreese Bickham thinks he might know how that feels.

"I wasn't on ice, but I was in a can; and they opened the can and I crawled out," says Bickham, who at 78 is a free man again.

When Bickham went to prison, everybody liked Ike, blacks in the South drank from "colored" water fountains, and trips to the moon were the stuff of science fiction, not science.

He resurfaced in an America where jet planes zip across the country in six hours, money spits out of sidewalk machines and a black man can run for president.

"It's wonderful to be out here," Bickham says simply.

Bickham was sent to prison in 1958 for the deaths of two deputies in a small town in Louisiana. Bickham, who is black, said the white deputies were Ku Klux Klansmen out to get him. Prosecutors called it an ambush.

After a trial that lasted 2 1/2 hours, Bickham was sentenced to die in one of the killings. He wasn't tried on the other.

He got seven stays of execution before his sentence was commuted to life in prison in 1973 after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Seventeen years later, Bickham's cause was taken up in a radio documentary, "Tossing Away the Keys."

Last March, Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards cut Bickham's sentence to 75 years. Because of time off for good behavior and other sentence reductions, his time was up in January.

He emerged to a world turned upside-down.

Weeks after his release to Oakland, where he has been reunited with family, Bickham was still delighting in his forays into a brave new world.

His first call on a cellular phone: "I heard tell of them, but I didn't know that you could call anywhere, anytime." His first jet flight: "I never thought I'd fly in a jet that fast."

On a recent stroll along Oakland's busy waterfront, some of the deeper changes in society were embodied in the multiethnic lunch crowd milling about.

"I had dreams seeing this. But . . . I thought I'd be in the making, didn't think I'd be isolated somewhere and have to come out and see it already in progress," he says.

Even the mundane had the power to astound - 85-cent sodas and the intricacies of a multistory parking garage. "Boy, the man that invented this parking lot, he was on the ball," he said.

Perhaps the biggest changes in Bickham's world, though, are personal.

"When I first went in, I had only one daughter, now she's got eight children and they got 24 children. All that happened since I been locked up. It makes a man think, `How in the world (did) all this happen, and I've got to be away from it?' "

He's not bitter

But Bickham is far from bitter.

"To live through all this and come out with as much health as I got and the mind that I got, I'm so glad and happy and praising the Lord for it," he says.

The adult children of the two men Bickham killed, Gus Gill and Jake Galloway, don't share his joy.

"He has brought a lot of hardship in my heart, and he doesn't deserve to get out," Delores Serigne, the 62-year-old daughter of Galloway, said of Bickham's release.

Bickham, who makes a point of mentioning the dead men and their families whenever he talks about his experiences, hopes the families will one day forgive him.

"I don't want to go into the other world knowing that I could've straightened something up on this side and didn't do it," he says.

Even when his days were numbered, Bickham never lost interest in life on the outside.

Watching from a distance

He witnessed many of the milestones of the late 20th century second-hand through the crackle of a small radio or the flickering images of a communal TV.

The Kennedy assassination: "I didn't feel good about it, you know . . . (I said) good people die while the no-good live forever, look like . . . he was a young man."

The civil-rights movement: "I was watching that pretty regular. I appreciate what happened. But some way or another, it didn't work out after Mr. King got killed."

The moon landing: "It's kind of hard to believe it yet."

Often, the best source of news was young inmates fresh from the front lines of revolutions political, sexual and cultural.

"I'd get right in the middle with them, you know, and listen and learn things I never seen nor heard tell of," Bickham recalls.

Watching life unfold from a distance, Bickham sometimes wondered what might have been if he hadn't crossed paths with the two deputies on that July night in 1958.

The elderly officers - aged 68 and 74 - worked part time in Mandeville, then a small town across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.

Bickham maintains they came to get him after he argued with one outside a bar. He says he came out of his house holding an unloaded shotgun over his head and yelled to the officers it was empty. He says he got shot in the stomach in reply.

Bickham says he then loaded the gun and shot both officers before they could move in for the kill.

His lawyer, Michael Alcamo, got involved in the case in 1994 at the urging of his friend David Isay, who had produced the documentary about Bickham.

"I knew from the very first page of the trial transcript that there was something fundamentally wrong," Alcamo said. For one thing, prosecutors claimed Bickham was enraged because one of the deputies had refused to give him a ride home.

"I just can't believe that a 41-year-old carpenter would have been so enraged as to form an intent to murder two deputies which would mean the end of his own life," Alcamo said.

Stories of jury tampering

Then he found that at least two jurors had not come from the jury pool, backing up stories he'd heard that the judge and a court officer had called on their friends to serve.

Bickham doesn't believe he got a fair trial, but he doesn't spend too much time on might-have-beens.

"The freest person in the world is the one that's satisfied with what they have," he says firmly.

For now, he's satisfied just to be free.

At 78, Bickham doesn't know how long he'll have to enjoy life on the outside, "but what little it is I think I want (to) live it out in peace, doing a few of the things I like - like going fishing."

His reunion with family has been sweet, even leading to a reconciliation with his wife, Ernestine. They had separated before he went to prison.

"It's kind of heartwarming that 38 years later he realized how much he loved the woman he married," Alcamo said.

Graying, lined, but moving like a man 10 years his junior, Bickham is happy to be able to "walk down the street with . . . anybody you want to and feel comfortable."

He finds plenty to smile about in his new life - from the wiles of a great-grandchild bent on improving his toy collection to a store window display of an avant-garde dress made entirely of zippers.

Sometimes years of captivity reassert themselves; he writes a letter and starts to list his convict number after his name. Then he forgets he can seal it without having a guard check the contents.

Reading the Bible, a constant solace in prison, is still a comfort.

But his favorite passage has changed.

In his darkest hours, Bickham sometimes read Psalm 31 three times a day, savoring its mournful eloquence: "I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind: I am like a broken vessel."

Now, he turns to the happier cadence of Psalm 30 and its timeless promise that "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."

"That's what I see now," he says, a smile illuminating his face. "I see joy. Morning's here."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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