Los Angeles Sentinel
By Shirley Hawkins
September 14, 2016
Statistics from the Sentencing Project on Racial Disparities in the U.S.Criminal Justice System found that “one out of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime.”
One of the victims of the penal system was Gary Tyler, who was only 16-years-old when he was charged with a crime he did not commit. Sentenced to the notorious Angola maximum-security prison in West Feliciano Parish, Louisiana, Tyler languished in prison for the next 41 years.
Tyler’s ordeal began in 1974, when public schools were undergoing integration. He was sitting on a bus filled with African-American students leaving Destrehan High School in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, when a crowd of approximately 200 began yelling out racial slurs and throwing rocks and bottles.
A shot rang out that wounded 13-year-old white class mate Timothy Weber, who later died at the local hospital.
The bus was searched and sheriffs deputies claimed they found a gun hidden between the seats (which was never recovered) and arrested Tyler for the murder.
Within a week, Tyler was tried by an all-white jury and was sentenced to death by electric chair. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana’s death penalty was unconstitutional. Instead, Tyler received life in prison.
“When they arrested me, I told them that I was innocent, but no one listened,” Tyler sadly recalls.
Even though four witnesses on the bus later recanted their testimony about the teen shooting Weber, Tyler was subsequently shipped to Angola prison, the youngest inmate ever to be incarcerated in the country.
Tyler recalls his sense of fear as the metal gates clanged shut on his jail cell. “When the prison gates shut behind me, I felt as if I was shut off from the rest of the world,” he recalled. “You knew you would not exit those gates once they were closed.”
Tyler said that Angola prison turned out to be a test of sheer survival. “Angola was the bloodiest, most infamous prison in the nation,” he said. “It was a prison of turmoil where prisoners were killing each other and committing suicide. Some prisoners were beaten to death by guards.”
For the next 40 years, Tyler’s attorneys worked diligently to prove his innocence. His case gained national attention and he was finally freed on April 29, 2016.
Tyler, now 58, said he was relieved to flee his nightmarish four-decades of incarceration and has since relocated to Pasadena, CA.
“I’m taking life day-by-day,” said Tyler, who said he has been embraced by a team of people who are helping him to adjust to civilian life.
On Saturday, Sept.17, Tyler will serve as the keynote speaker at the 2016 4th Annual “A New Way of Life Justice on Trial Film Festival” at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles on Sept. 17 and 18. He will discuss his incarceration, his feelings on prison reform and his struggle with forgiveness.
His speech will follow the showing of the gritty, eye-opening “Cast the First Stone,” a film about redemption that features Tyler.
The two-day festival will feature seven documentaries including the Oscar-nominated “Last Day of Freedom,” “South Bureau Homicide,” “The Return,” “The ‘If’ Project,” ”Out in the Night” and “They Call Us Monsters.”
Screenings will be followed by a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers. On Sunday, Sept.18 at 3 p.m., a “Power Panel” discussion will feature social justice activists, including Monique Morris, author of “Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools” and New York Attorney and lecturer Rick Jones (Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem).
The JOT Film Fest is the brainchild of New York Times best-selling author Michelle Alexander and Susan Burton, founder of A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project, a non-profit organization that assists formerly incarcerated women.
“This weekend we will review films, listen and engage in conversation around competing content with an eye toward working and pushing for justice,” said Burton. “This film festival will serve as a platform for dialogue and action.”
Tickets are $25.00 for both days and will be available on site. For ticket information, access JOTFF@anewwayoflife.org or call (323) 563-3575.