By Bob Herbert, Op-Ed Columnist / New York Times
St. Rose, Louisiana, February 8, 2007
Juanita Tyler lives in a neat one-story house that sits behind a glistening magnolia tree that dominates the small front lawn.
She is 74 now and unfailingly gracious, but she admits to being tired from a lifetime of hard work and trouble. I went to see her to talk about her son, Gary.
The Tylers are black. In 1974, when Gary was 16, he was accused of murdering a 13-year-old white boy outside the high school that they attended in nearby Destrehan. The boy was shot to death in the midst of turmoil over school integration, which the local whites were resisting violently.
The case against young Tyler – who was on a bus with other black students that was attacked by about 200 whites – was built on bogus evidence and coerced testimony. But that was enough to get him convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to die in the electric chair. His life was spared when the Louisiana death penalty was ruled unconstitutional, but he is serving out a life sentence with no chance of parole in the state penitentiary at Angola.
Ms. Tyler’s sharpest memory of the day Gary was arrested was of sitting in a room at a sheriff’s station, listening to deputies in the next room savagely beating her son.
“They beat Gary so bad,” she said. “My poor child. I couldn’t do nothing. They wouldn’t let me in there. I saw who went in there. They were like older men. They didn’t care that I was there. They didn’t care who was there. They beat Gary something awful, and I could hear him hollering and moaning. All I could say was, “Oh Jesus, have mercy.”
“One of the deputies had a strap and they whipped him with that. It was terrible. Finally, when they let me go in there, Gary was just trembling. He was frightened to death. He was trembling and rocking back and forth. They had kicked him all in his privates. He said, “Mama, they kicked me. One kicked me in the front and one kicked in the back.” He said that over and over.
“I couldn’t believe what they had done to my baby.”
The deputies had tried to get Gary to confess, but he wouldn’t. Ms. Tyler (like so many people who have looked closely at this case) was scornful of the evidence the authorities came up with.
“It was ridiculous,” she said. “Where was he gonna get that big ol’ police gun they said he used? It was a great big ol’ gun. And he had on those tight-fitting clothes and nobody saw it?”
The gun that investigators produced as the murder weapon was indeed a large, heavy weapon – a government-issued Colt .45 that had been stolen from a firing range used by the sheriff’s department. Deputies who saw Gary before the shooting and those who searched him (and the rest of the black students on the bus) immediately afterward did not see any gun.
“I don’t know where the police got that gun from,” said Ms. Tyler. “But they didn’t get it from my son, that’s for sure.”
Ms. Tyler worked for many years as a domestic while raising 11 children. Her husband, Uylos, a maintenance worker who often held three jobs at a time, died in 1989. “He had a bad heart,” Ms. Tyler said.
She shifted in her chair in the living room of the small house, and was quiet for several minutes. Then she asked, “Do you know what it’s like to lose a child?”
I shook my head.
“I always felt sorry for that woman whose son was killed,” she said. “That was a terrible time. I remember it clear, like it was yesterday. But what happened was wrong. The white people, they didn’t want no black children in that school. So there was a lot of tension. And my son has paid a terrible price for that.
“They didn’t have no kind of proof against him, but they beat him bad anyway, and then they sentenced him to the electric chair.”
Ms. Tyler visits Gary at Angola regularly, the last time a few weeks ago. “He’s doing well,” she said. “And I’m glad that he’s able to cope. He tries to help the young ones out when they come in there. He always tells me, “My dear, you have to stay strong so I can stay strong.” So then I just try to hold my head up and keep on going.”
She looked for a moment as if she was going to cry, but she didn’t.
“It’s just sad,” she said. “I wonder if he’ll ever be able to come out. I wonder will I live long enough to see him out.”