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“Southern man, when will you pay them back?”
– Neil Young
I have waited 38 years to write the following words: Gary Tyler is a free man.
One of the greatest miscarriages of justice of the last 50 years ended April 29. After 41 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, Gary Tyler was released April 29. In 1975, at the age of 17, Tyler was convicted of shooting and killing 13-year-old Timothy Weber in the middle of a race riot at in Destrehan, Louisiana. Tyler was sentenced to death, and became the youngest person on death row in the country. His sentence was later reduced to life, but under Louisiana law Tyler would need a pardon to be released – it was essentially life without parole.
Gary Tyler’s real crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And being black. Gary’s jury was all-white. Case closed. The state of Louisiana stole 41 years of Gary Tyler’s life, and the state knew it every step of the way.
I first wrote about Gary in 1978, four years after his arrest and three years after his conviction, and in 2003 I visited and interviewed him in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison, his home for four decades.
In October 1974, Destrehan High School was in the throes of a violent court-ordered desegregation. A black-white fight broke out a Friday night football game, and the following Monday more fights broke out at the school. Classes were canceled and the school’s buses were called to take students home.
Tyler was nowhere near the school. He was miles away, heading for home. Tyler had a reputation for his outspokenness, and with tensions running high, Gary was sent home early. He almost made it home, and had he, his life might have been very different.
But St. Charles Parish Police Officer V.J. St. Pierre spotted Tyler, and unconvinced by Tyler’s story, St. Pierre put Tyler in his police car and drove him back to Destrehan High School. They landed in the middle of a full-blown riot. A white mob had descended on the school and was throwing rocks and bottles as students boarded buses to go home. As Tyler’s bus pulled away a shot was fired and outside the bus 13-year-old Timothy Weber was shot in the head and killed.
The bus stopped, and its passengers were ordered off. Outside the bus Gary defended a student who was being interrogated about a bullet necklace around his neck. Tyler was detained and taken to a St. Charles Parish police substation, and then things started to go very badly.
Tyler says he was beaten with a blackjack by St. Pierre, the murder victim’s uncle, and by other officers. Tyler’s mother went to the police station looking for Gary, and later said she could hear Gary’s cries from a back room.
Despite the police thuggery, Tyler didn’t confess. The next day Tyler was transferred to court for arraignment, and Tyler’s head was covered by a jacket so media wouldn’t see his bruises.
In a parish that was 25 percent black and a state that was one third black, Tyler faced an all-white jury. The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of other students, all of whom later recanted their testimony, saying they had been threatened with prison if they didn’t cooperate.
Key witness Natalie Blanks, a jilted girlfriend of Tyler, had a history of grandiosity and false confessions. This was not revealed at trial. Gary’s bus was twice searched by police and nothing was found, but on their third try police “found” a big 45-caliber pistol they had somehow missed before. Later the gun vanished altogether. The bus driver, a Korea War veteran, said there was no way a 45 was fired from the bus. It was later revealed the gun had gone missing from a firing range frequented by police. Experts said the slug had far too little residual matter to have caused a head wound. The gun had no prints, and no gun-bullet connection was ever established. Police said gloves Tyler was wearing proved positive for gunpowder residue, but incorrect chemicals were used in the tests, the trace amounts of alleged residue were insufficient for an accurate test, and the man who conducted the test was later fired for giving false testimony in another case.
Tyler’s lawyer had never tried a capital case. By his own admission he spent little time with Tyler prior to trial, and he failed to object to the judge’s highly prejudicial jury instructions. The judge essentially told the jury it could presume guilt. Four years later an appeals court found the trial fundamentally unfair, but did not order a retrial. Gary Tyler paid 41 years for his lawyer’s incompetence and for the appeals court’s bizarre concept of justice.
Parole boards twice recommended parole for Tyler, and twice governors rejected the recommendations of their own handpicked boards. Governor Buddy Roemer cited Tyler’s failure to complete high school while in prison, but Tyler had repeatedly sought entrance into educational programs and had been repeatedly told they were full.
Finally, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life sentences without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional. Then in January of this year, fully four years later – who’s in a hurry? – the court ruled that its 2012 finding was retroactive, and in March the court sent Tyler’s case back to Louisiana for re-sentencing. At that point the state cut a deal. Tyler pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received the maximum 21 years. Having already served 41 years, Tyler was released immediately. Gary Tyler’s 41-year nightmare was finally over. At long last he was a free man.
But how many more Gary Tylers are out there, Gary Tylers we never hear about? And how many have been executed? Having followed Gary’s case for 38-plus years, I believe those who estimate that ten percent of those executed in this country are innocent.