Sports figures are joining the crusade to free a Louisiana man convicted as a teenager of a murder he didn’t commit.
By Dave Zirin
April 4, 2007
The history of the American legal system is scarred with instances of injustice: the Haymarket martyrs, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Add to this list the case of Gary Tyler, convicted of murder at the age of 16. Tyler’s case was remarkable because at the time of his 1975 conviction, he was the nation’s youngest death-row inmate. The spotlight dimmed when his sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole in 1977, a year after the US Supreme Court declared Louisiana’s death penalty unconstitutional.
Tyler, now 48, is living out his days in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. A former slave plantation, Angola is home to 5,000 prisoners, 75 percent of whom are black. He has now spent years of his life behind bars because he was the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time.
National interest in Tyler’s case was revived by a recent series of articles by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. In 1974 Tyler was on a school bus filled with African-American students who attended the formerly all-white Destrehan High School in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. A white mob attacked the school bus. As Gary’s brother Terry recalled years later to journalist Adam Nossiter in a piece published in The Nation, “They were on the attack, man. It was panic.”
Witnesses at the time said someone on the bus pointed out the window and yelled, “Look at that white boy with that gun.” After several pops, a 13-year-old white student, Timothy Weber, lay wounded on the ground. Weber’s cousin, Deputy Sheriff V.J. St. Pierre, rushed the boy to the hospital, where he later died from a gunshot wound. Later, white supremacist David Duke came to Destrehan to fan the flames of racial hatred.
Herbert wrote, “That single shot in this rural town about 25 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans set in motion a tale of appalling injustice that has lasted to the present day.” The police came onto the bus and Tyler was dragged off. Then came the beatings. As Juanita Tyler, Gary’s mother, told Herbert, “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.” An all-white jury found Tyler guilty of first-degree murder. Since his conviction, the four witnesses against him have recanted their testimony.
The murder weapon, as Herbert reported, had been “stolen from a firing range used by the sheriff’s deputies.” It appeared out of nowhere as the murder weapon. The gun has since magically disappeared from the evidence room.
A federal appeals court ultimately ruled that Tyler did not receive a fair trial, but justice was again denied. In an interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now!, Herbert explained that the court ruled that “the charge to the jury was flawed, and they said that it was flawed so badly that it clearly could have had an impact on how the jurors ruled. But they were so insistent on not having this case overturned and not having Gary Tyler freed or have a new trial that they ruled on a technicality that he did not deserve a new trial. So it’s on the record that a federal appeals court has said that his trial was fundamentally unfair.”
In 1989, Louisiana Board of Pardons (LBP) voted 3 to 2 to commute Tyler’s sentence from life to sixty years, making Tyler eligible for a speedy release from prison. But Louisiana Governor Charles “Buddy” Roemer, a Democrat facing an electoral challenge from David Duke, refused to issue a pardon. A crucial element in Roemer’s decision was the racially charged political climate: Eighteen years later, that climate has changed. And now the fight to free Gary Tyler has been reignited by a new advocacy effort, led by Tyler’s family, lawyers and activists.
Joe Allen, a member of the Free Gary Tyler steering committee, credited Bob Herbert’s columns for reviving the effort to free him. “Gary’s case is one of the great miscarriages of justice in the modern history of the US but had largely been forgotten until the recent work by Bob Herbert,” he told me. “I think think there is momentum now that makes it possible for the first time in decades to build a national campaign for his freedom.”
In addition to the Free Gary Tyler campaign, Amnesty International’s relaunched advocacy has given the Tyler case new visibility. Building on this momentum, I contacted people I know from the world of sports to ask if they would to stand with Tyler at this critical time. And they have responded.
Tommie Smith and John Carlos were part of the most dynamic moment in the history of sports and struggle when they raised their black-gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics. Lee Evans was also a gold medal winner at those Olympics and a leader of the Olympic Project for Human Rights. Rubin “Hurricane” Carter was a top-ranked boxer who spent almost twenty years in prison for a triple homicide before being exonerated after an international campaign to win his freedom. Jim “Bulldog” Bouton and Bill “Spaceman” Lee were all-star pitchers for the Yankees and Red Sox who told uncomfortable truths about both society and the game that they love. Etan Thomas plays for the NBA’s Washington Wizards and stands in the tradition of the previous generation of political athletes. Together, they and other sports figures are are asking Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco for the release of Gary Tyler. Read the statement to see how Tyler’s quest for justice has brought these and other extraordinary figures from the world of sports together.
To: Gov. Kathleen Blanco
We, the undersigned members of the sports community, call upon you, in the name of justice and racial reconciliation, to pardon Gary Tyler and free him from Angola prison. Gary is an innocent man who has spent 32 of his 48 years on earth behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Gary’s life has been destroyed because of racial hysteria and that peculiar brand of police work known internationally as “Southern Justice.”
As you are undoubtedly aware, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert has spent the last month exposing the terrifying truth behind Gary’s conviction. In 1975, Gary Tyler, an African-American teenager, was convicted by an all-white jury for the murder of Timothy Weber, a thirteen-year-old white youth. Weber was shot and killed during a busing riot where 200 whites attacked Gary’s school bus. Weber’s death quite understandably sent shock waves across the state. The police needed a killer.
They chose Gary and his nightmare officially began. Gary’s mother detailed to Herbert the sounds of listening to deputies at the police station savagely whipping her son, while they blocked her from entering the room. “They beat Gary so bad,” she said. “My poor child. I couldn’t do nothing.” Every witness who identified Gary as the shooter has since recanted and alleged police intimidation. The gun supposedly used on that day has disappeared.
In the mid-1970s, Gary’s case mobilized thousands across the country for his freedom and led Amnesty International to declare him a “political prisoner.” Denied a fair trial 32 years ago, imprisoned for life for a crime he did not commit–we call upon you to free Gary Tyler now.
Rubin “Hurricane” Carter
boxer and author of The 16th Round
1968 Olympic gold medalist
1968 Olympic bronze medalist
Olympic gold medalist
Washington Wizards center and author of More Than an Athlete
former New York Yankee pitcher and author of Ball Four
Bill “Spaceman” Lee
former Boston Red Sox pitcher and author of The Wrong Stuff
Eddie Mustafa Muhammad
former Light Heavyweight Boxing Champion and head of Joint Action for Boxers (J.A.B.)
former NFL linebacker and retired Western Regional Director, NFL Players Association (NFLPA)
Jeff “Snowman” Monson
Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter
former member of Manhattanville College Women’s Basketball team
Dr. Phil Shinnick
member of the 1964 US Olympic team
co-editor of Bounce Magazine and NYC DJ
former director of the South African Non Racialist Olympic Committee and professor emeritus of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh
executive director, Athletes United for Peace
sports editor, the Daily Worker, 1936-58
former assistant basketball coach at the University of Texas El Paso and author of Paddy on the Hardwood: Journey Through Irish Hoops
president and CEO of Latino Sports Ventures
editor of LatinoSports.com
columnist for The Nation online and author of What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States