By Bob Herbert, Op-Ed Columnist / New York Times
Destrehan, Louisiana, February 5, 2007
The term time warp could have been coined for this rural town of 11,000 residents that sits beside, and just a little below, the Mississippi River. A remnant of the sugar-plantation era, the region’s racially troubled past is always here, seldom spoken about but inescapable, like the murk in the air of a perpetually stalled weather front.
The Harry Hurst Middle School is on the site of the old Destrehan High School, which was the scene of violent protests during the integration period of the 1970s. Local residents have tried to blot out the murder case that made Destrehan High notorious three decades ago, but there’s a big problem with that collective effort to forget. The black teenager who was railroaded into prison (and almost into the electric chair) for the murder of a white student in 1974 is still in prison all these many years later. He’s middle-aged now, still suffering through a life sentence without any chance for parole in the notorious state penitentiary at Angola.
There is no longer any doubt that the case against the teenager, Gary Tyler, was a travesty. A federal appeals court ruled unequivocally that he did not receive a fair trial. The Louisiana Board of Pardons issued rulings on three occasions that would have allowed Mr. Tyler to be freed.
But this is the South and Mr. Tyler was a black person convicted of killing a white. It didn’t matter that the case was built on bogus evidence and coerced witnesses, or that the trial was, in the words of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, “fundamentally unfair.” Mr. Tyler was never given a new trial and the pardon board recommendations were rejected by two governors.
(Lurking in the background as the case unfolded was David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who was very active politically in Louisiana and always ready to inject his poison into the public issues of the day. If you drive around Destrehan and nearby communities today you will still see some of the old blue-and-white campaign signs for Duke.)
Mr. Tyler, a sophomore at Destrehan High, was on a bus filled with black students that was attacked on Oct. 7, 1974, by a white mob enraged over school integration. A shot was fired and a 13-year-old white boy standing outside the bus collapsed, mortally wounded. Mr. Tyler was arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace after he talked back to a sheriff’s deputy.
Although the bus and its passengers were searched and no weapon was found, Mr. Tyler was taken into custody, savagely beaten and accused of committing the murder. A gun was found during a subsequent search of the bus and witnesses were rounded up to testify against Mr. Tyler. It turned out that the gun (which has since disappeared) had been stolen from a firing range used by officers of the sheriff’s department. All of the witnesses who fingered Mr. Tyler would eventually recant, saying they had been terrorized into testifying falsely by the authorities.
Mr. Tyler was represented at trial by a white sole practitioner who had never handled a murder case, much less a death penalty case. He kept his meetings with his client to a minimum and would later complain about the money he was paid.
The outcome was predictable. Mr. Tyler was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair by an all-white jury. At 17, he was the youngest prisoner on death row in the country. He almost certainly would have been executed if the U.S. Supreme Court had not ruled the Louisiana death penalty unconstitutional.
The Fifth Circuit ruling in 1981 said that an improper charge to the jury had denied Mr. Tyler the presumption of innocence at his trial. It is folly, the court said, to argue that the erroneous charge did not affect the central determination of guilt or innocence.
What was folly was any expectation that Mr. Tyler would be treated fairly at any point. Despite the appeals court ruling, he was denied a new trial on a technicality.
Now consider this, because it will tell you all you need to know about racial justice in the South. A 19-year-old black man named Richard Dunn was shotgunned to death as he was heading home from a benefit dance in support of Mr. Tyler at Southern University in New Orleans in 1976. A white man, Anthony Mart, was arrested and convicted of shooting Mr. Dunn from a passing car.
Gary Tyler’s current attorney, Mary Howell, ruefully explained what happened to Mr. Mart for the cold-blooded killing of a black stranger: He was sent to prison for life but was pardoned and freed after serving about 10 years.