By Adam Nossiter
Originally publised by The Nation Magazine
March 12, 1990
Lynchings in the Deep South are rare these days. Respectable Southerners never much cared for them anyway, although they recognized their usefulness as a way of keeping blacks in their place. Still, lynchings were awfully messy. So over the years, the starched shirt South developed a cleaner, more formal way of carrying out this larger social purpose. It used the court system. Small-town Southern justice has proved as adept as any lynch mob at victimizing blacks.
This tradition, unlike the more violent one, has persisted to the present day. In the past few months, the attention of civil rights advocates in Louisiana has focused on a case that has long been considered one of the more egregious examples of Southern legal lynching. It began in this isolated, working-class Mississippi River town fifteen years ago, during violent upheavals surrounding the integration of the local high school.
On October 7, 1974, a furious mob of whites shouting racial epithets and hurling rocks and bottles surrounded a school bus full of terrified blacks from Destrehan High School. A shot rang out. On the sidewalk, a 13-year-old white boy, Timothy Weber, fell to the ground, mortally wounded. Gary Tyler, a 16-year-old black with a reputation as a troublemaker, was sitting on the school bus that day. He was arrested, convicted of Weber’s shooting and sentenced to die in the electric chair by an all-white jury. He became the youngest person on death row in the United States.
In 1977 he was resentenced to life in one of the country’s grimmest prisons, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Today, Tyler still becomes enraged when he talks about his case, unlike many prisoners who proclaim their innocence. Racism sent him to Angola, he insists. Over the years, a substantial number of people have come to agree. His case was briefly an international cause celebre. Amnesty International listed him as a political prisoner, hundreds of people marched and rallied in New Orleans in 1977 demanding his release and Gil Scott-Heron and UB40 have written songs about him.
Last spring his longtime attorney, Mary Howell, actively working on the case after a lapse of years during which she couldn’t afford to devote all her time to it, appealed a second time to the Louisiana Pardon Board for Tyler’s release. In mid-December, the pardon board recommended that he be eligible for parole in five years. That put his fate in the hands of Governor Buddy Roemer, and Tyler’s supporters were not overly optimistic. Roemer has been more reluctant to grant pardons than previous Louisiana governors. Out of 597 pardon recommendations that have piled up on his desk in the past two years, Roemer has granted only 140. Sure enough, on January 24 Roemer rejected the board’s recommendation, saying he was still convinced of Tyler’s guilt. “I do want to send a signal that we will be fairly tough and consistent”‘ said the Governor, who faces a difficult re-election campaign next year. The state, in arguing against a pardon for Tyler, noted that he has “demanded that he be allowed to correspond with socialist and communist publications like the Socialist Worker.” Mary Howell intends to file another appeal with the pardon board.
The Tyler case began with a race riot and proceeded through brutal beatings and apparently coerced testimony by white sheriff’s deputies. In the turmoil after young Weber’s shooting, David Duke, then a 24-year-old rising star in the Ku Klux Klan, came down to St. Charles Parish with a posse of “security teams” to protect the populace from what he called “savage blacks and murderers!’ The affair ended with a trial, which the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit later called “fundamentally unfair” because Judge Ruche Marino told the jury it could presume Tyler’s guilt. The appeals court nonetheless rejected Tyler’s appeal on technical grounds.
For fifteen years, evidence has been accumulating that suggests Gary Tyler was not the person who shot Timothy Weber. In the past year alone, Howell has brought to light much new evidence. A December 1974 crime-lab report she uncovered, which was never shown to the defense at Tyler’s 1975 trial, revealed that the bullet that supposedly killed Weber had no blood on it. This is highly unusual in cases involving a head wound. The chemicals that state criminologist Herman Parish said he used to determine the presence of gunpowder on gloves worn by Tyler were the “wrong ones” and are never used by professionals in such tests, according to an affidavit by Ronald Singer, Parish’s successor as director of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Crime Laboratory. Moreover, accurate tests for gunpowder require the presence of whole flakes. Only “dark specks” were found on Tyler’s gloves, Singer’s affidavit said. Not long after Tyler’s trial, Parish was forced to resign because he had falsified test results in another case.
Last June, Howell’s investigation located the man who had been sitting next to Gary Tyler on Bus 91 that day in October 1974. Larry Dabney, then a frightened 16-year-old, helped send Tyler to jail by testifying that he saw his schoolmate hide a gun in a bus seat immediately after the shooting. Dabney told the investigator he had been waiting fifteen years to tell the real story.
Late on the night of October 7, 1974, deputies picked up Dabney at his parents’ house and took him down to the sheriff’s office. “I’ll never forget what happened next.” Dabney told Howell’s investigator. “It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me. The deputies didn’t even ask me what I saw. They told me flat out I was going to be their key witness. They started telling me what my statement was going to be,” Dabney said. “They told me I was going to testify that I saw Gary with a gun right after I heard the shot, and that a few minutes later I had seen him hide it in a slit in the seat:’
It was a good story, but it was not true, Dabney now says. “I didn’t see Gary or anybody else in that bus with a gun:’ But Larry Dabney was “scared to death” at the sheriff’s office. The deputies told him he was going to “sign the statement they put together for me or I was going to jail for ten years.” He signed the statement. Tyler went to jail.
Mary Howell insists the handling of the Tyler case was not unusual. “The system worked fine. This is the prototypical Southern legal lynching.”
The desolation of the town of Destrehan adds plausibility to Howell’s claim of a lynching. Lynchings typically occur in places cut off from urban, civilizing influences. There is an air of isolation about the nondescript tract houses that make up the communities that hug the Mississippi River at the edge of Cajun country. They lie in the shadow of the oppressive fifteen-foot-high levee, which runs for miles along the river and seals them off from the outside world. New Orleans, only twenty-five miles downriver, seems very far away. Local historians say the river parishes, of which St. Charles is one, have never been influenced much by the tolerant, easygoing city.
A giant Shell petrochemical plant has loomed over these communities in one form or another since the second decade of this century, but it has never provided much employment. An older monument here, the white-columned, eighteenth century Destrehan plantation house beneath the levee, tells more about ancient sources of wealth and poverty. This was sugarcane and farming country, and when the agricultural economy collapsed earlier this century, it left behind poor whites and poor blacks, who competed with each other for jobs. Unlike many other Southern communities, there were no “segregation academies” to which whites could flee when integration came along. Whites and blacks would have to get along at Destrehan High. In fact, they sparred constantly, and every Friday there were fights.
Tyler himself was caught in a chain of circumstances that landed him squarely in Angola. It began on the evening of Friday, October 4, 1974, at that locus of small-town Southern hopes and aggressions, the high-school football game. A fight broke out between blacks and whites. What sparked it is unclear, but when school opened the following Monday the students had not forgotten. Taunts were traded. One student was stabbed with a wig comb, another with a knife. A teacher was also stabbed.
By the time the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Department and the state troopers arrived, blacks and whites were in two groups, cursing each other and throwing rocks and bottles. Violence was in the air. Maj. Charles Faucheux of the sheriff’s department coolly looked on as “one of the black students … ran to the highway and probably about fifty white students started chasing him:’ as the major testified in court papers. “I went back into the building … and called for more help:’ Eventually, the black students, including Gary Tyler, were herded onto buses to be sent home.
But for one sheriff’s deputy who was to play a fateful role in Tyler’s arrest and prosecution, the young man might not have been on Bus 91 that day. He had been sent home earlier by the principal after being involved in a confrontation with white students. But as he was hitchhiking with a friend, he was stopped by Deputy Sheriff V.J. St. Pierre. St. Pierre had arrested Tyler on a burglary charge the year before and considered the young man to be a “smart nigger,” as he later called him. Tyler, the son of a service-station attendant and a domestic worker, was known for being outspoken in school. On this day St. Pierre searched Tyler and found nothing, but suspected him of playing hooky and drove him back to the school.
After the fighting started Tyler, along with other blacks, ran for the school buses to escape the menacing mob. As Bus 91 pulled out, a crowd of 200 whites surrounded it, throwing rocks and bottles and yelling epithets. The students on Bus 91 were terrified, as Tyler’s brother Terry remembered in a recent interview. “They were on the attack, man. It was panic”‘ he said. It was like “you be out in a boat, and the boat’s sinking. You can’t see the land:’ All of a sudden, the students heard a loud popping noise. Some hit the floor of the bus. ‘They were screaming and hollering” in fear, Tyler says. The sheriff’s deputies told the bus driver to stop, and all the students were ordered out. The deputies clambered onto the bus and “started treating us like animals:’ remembers Patricia Files, a student. It was like they were on a rampage:’ Meanwhile, the crowd outside had become quiet. Timothy Weber had been hit by a bullet.
St. Pierre happened to be Weber’s cousin. He rushed the young man to the hospital, but it was too late. Back at school, in the turmoil after Weber’s shooting, Gary Tyler had been arrested for trying to intervene when a deputy was harassing a black student. He was brought to a St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Department substation. There, the enraged St. Pierre, a Vietnam veteran who had lost a leg in the war, was determined to find his cousin’s killer. “I’m getting the motherfucker that did it,” Tyler remembers him screaming. A deputy handed St. Pierre a blackjack, and he proceeded to beat Tyler systematically on the shoulders, knees and face. “So he ordered me to take off my pants; said he wanted to see what a black ass looked like,” Tyler said in a deposition. Another deputy kicked him on the legs and in the back. St. Pierre stopped only when other deputies cautioned him that people downstairs could hear Tyler’s cries.
One of them was Juanita Tyler, the young man’s mother, who had gone to the sheriff’s substation to find her son. “I could hear the sounds of a beating:’ she recalled in a recent interview. “It was like a smothered holler. The sounds of a person hollering. Sounds of licks. Bam, pow.” She saw her son not long after the beating stopped. “He was just trembling,” she said.
Tyler refused to confess, but the deputies did not need his confession. At least five black students said they had seen Tyler holding a gun, and one testified that Tyler had fired the gun into the crowd. Natalie Blanks, 14 at the time, was the prosecution’s key witness. Tyler’s arrest for murder was based on her statement, but there is much about her personal history that raises questions.
Blanks was Gary Tyler’s jilted former girlfriend. She had been undergoing treatment at a local mental health clinic since 1968. St. Pierre was aware she had previously made three false crime reports, including a claim that she had been kidnapped, which he investigated. Her mother said, “She is just an exaggerating person whose word is not dependable.”
A year after Tyler’s trial, Natalie Blanks said that sheriff’s deputies had forced her to incriminate Tyler. She had never seen Tyler with a gun. But Judge Marino was not impressed by her recantation, nor by evidence that she had a history of mental illness. “The Norco Mental Health Unit has treated almost maybe 99 percent of the population over here in St. Charles and St. John and Jefferson’ ” the judge said. Another student on the bus, Loretta London Thomas, also recanted. The deputies had threatened her with jail unless she incriminated Gary Tyler, she said. She is thus the fifth witness, along with Dabney, Blanks, Files and Michael Campbell, to insist that sheriff’s deputies forced testimony incriminating Tyler.
Ten years ago Howell, in preparing Tyler’s appeal to the pardon board, asked to see the .45 semiautomatic introduced at the trial as the weapon that killed Weber. St. Charles Parish authorities said they couldn’t find it. Ten years later it is still missing.
The gun has had an interesting history. For three hours after Weber’s shooting, deputies searched the bus looking for a murder weapon. They found nothing. Then Natalie Blanks identified the seat Tyler had been sitting in. Deputies took it out of the bus, searched it and found nothing. Later, however, they said they had discovered the gun stuffed inside a long slit in the seat. It had no fingerprints on it. The gun was identified as one stolen from an indoor firing range in the suburb of Kenner, a range frequented by St. Charles Parish deputies.
Even if a gun was fired from Bus 91, the bus driver, a Korean War veteran named Ernest Cojoe, is certain it could not have been a .45. ” If it was fired within the school bus, somebody’s eardrums would have been busted in a closed bus:’ he said in a deposition. “I didn’t hear any shooting off of my bus.”
Fifteen years after Tyler’s conviction, the prosecutor, Norman Pitre, has no doubt that he got the right man. He has heard about the new evidence Howell has come up with. It is all “fantastic suppositions’ ” he said. Sitting in his law office in the desolate river town of Luling, Pitre said, “I’ve seen nothing to make me doubt the accuracy of the conviction.”
Across the river in Montz, former St. Charles Parish Deputy St. Pierre limps to the front door of his family’s welding operation to meet a reporter. There is an angry look on his face. A short, balding Cajun, he doesn’t want to talk about the Tyler case. He and his ex-colleagues in the department have been smeared enough, he says. The renewed attention to the case “stinks ” he says. “The only one benefiting is his mama:’ St. Pierre limps away. In a television interview last summer he denied beating Gary Tyler.
There is a police photograph of Gary Tyler and the other black students on Bus 91 taken shortly after deputies had ordered all the students off on the day of the shooting. He is sassing the camera, arms held out from his sides defiantly, a rebellious grin on his face. Up at Angola, after fifteen years of prison life, Gary Tyler is still defiant. “I knew I was innocent:’ he tells a visitor angrily. “Do you understand? I believed in the judicial system. I just hope that no one else goes through what I went through. I look at it like this…. My case is a symbol for many blacks. Knowing what happened to me is something that systematically occurs to blacks around the United States, and particularly the South. It makes a statement itself. I only hope that what happened to me would never happen to anyone again.”