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Gary Tyler on Maintaining Hope and Compassion in the U.S. Prison System

Gary Tyler on Maintaining Hope and Compassion in the U.S. Prison System

By Emma Niles
October 14, 2016

A life on death row is unimaginable for most people—but for almost 3,000 prisoners in the United States, it is stark reality.

Gary Tyler used to be one such prisoner, unjustly convicted and sentenced to death at age 16 for a crime he did not commit. After spending 41 years of his life at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, America’s largest maximum-security prison, Tyler was released in April.

Tyler sat down with the Truthdig team on Thursday for a live discussion on the U.S. prison system, streamed directly to our Facebook page.


Tyler recently sat for an interview with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer for KCRW’s “Scheer Intelligence” podcast. They discussed how Tyler was able to hold on to hope during those dark decades—for himself and for the prison system itself.

“When I was in prison, I was introduced to a culture that I never thought existed,” Tyler told Scheer. “I’ll never forget that when I went to death row, they had these doors that were slamming and prisoners shouting and hollering. It was like being introduced to an insane asylum, I guess.”

During his time in prison, Tyler directed a passion play featuring other inmates as cast members. This project became the basis of the documentary “Cast the First Stone.” Tyler explains:

Of course, I was able to recruit people from all walks of life in the prison. Also, that we’re talking about some people that had disciplinary problems and I knew these guys. I knew that giving them a chance, an opportunity, I could help transform them. I like that I had opportunity to interview and audition, you understand, these guys, because I opened it up to the prison population and I was getting, if you consider the worst of the worst, and to hear these guys say, “Give me chance. Let me prove myself.” It’s like people asking society, “Give me a second chance.” So, I heard their cries and I gave them that chance. I found them to be the most committed and dedicated actors that I had in the production.

A New Way of Life Justice on Trial Film Festival Set for Sept.17-18

A New Way of Life Justice on Trial Film Festival Set for Sept.17-18

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 or call (323) 563-3575.

Man Once Sentenced To Death Row Works To Abolish Capital Punishment In California

Man Once Sentenced To Death Row Works To Abolish Capital Punishment In California

By Megan Burke, Maureen Cavanaugh
Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Do you support the death penalty? It’s one of the most serious questions to confront California voters this November and one of the most divisive.

A Field Poll published in January shows 47 percent of California voters would choose to end the death penalty and replace it with life without the possibility of parole. That’s what Proposition 62 on the November ballot would do.

The same poll found 48 percent want to keep California’s death penalty and would support a new system to speed up the death penalty process. That’s what Proposition 66 would do.

KPBS is partnering with KPCC to host California Counts Town Hall: The Pros And Cons Of Repealing The Death Penalty, on Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the University of San Diego’s Peace and Justice Theater. If you can’t come to the event, tune in to Midday Edition on Thursday to hear a recording of the town hall.

One man who is now speaking out in support of Proposition 62 served time on death row for a murder he did not commit.

In 1974, at the age of 16, Gary Tyler was convicted in Louisiana of the murder of a white high school student and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court overturned the state’s death penalty in 1976 but Tyler, who is African American, was left with a life sentence for a murder he has steadfastly maintained he did not commit.

Despite recommendations from parole boards and finally a declaration that his life sentence was unconstitutional, Tyler was not released from Angola prison until April, having spent almost 42 years in prison, and only after he agreed to enter a guilty plea to manslaughter.

Tyler said family, friends and supporters across the country helped him survive the time he spent in prison.

“It’s always hard for anyone having to go through an ordeal where no matter what you do to try to prove to people that you are innocent, that the system is no longer functioning,” Tyler said. “That’s a bitter pill to swallow. But if you are determined to survive, you’re able to sustain under horrendous conditions. Because you know one thing, you stand on truth and you just make the best out of a bad situation.”

Tyler, who now lives in California, spoke to Midday Edition about why he supports Proposition 62.

Listen to the interview.

Four decades later, Gary Tyler is free

Four decades later, Gary Tyler is free

The Lousiana Weekly
May 9, 2016

After languishing in Louisiana’s maximum-security prison in Angola, La. for more than four decades, Gary Tyler was released on April 29.

Tyler, who was tried and convicted at the age of 16 for first-degree murder in the 1974 death of a white classmate at Destrehan High School during a period in which the River Parish school was rocked with heightened racial tensions amid efforts to integrate the school two decades after the Brown v. The Board of Education decision.Angola-Penitentiary-050916

Tyler, who was tried as an adult and spent nearly 42 years in the legendary penitentiary often referred to simply as Angola, is now 57.

After his conviction in Louisiana, a state many prison reform advocates refer to as the “prison capital of the world,” Tyler became a stark symbol of what is wrong with the criminal justice system in his home state and across the U.S.

“I am happy he has been released, but he should have never been tried and convicted as an adult in the first place,” the Rev. Raymond Brown, a community activist and president of National Action Now, told The Louisiana Weekly. “The criminal justice system in this region and state are still in existence and is still railroading Black people for crimes they either didn’t commit or hitting them with harsher sentences than they do their white counterparts.”

As an example of the injustice at work in the system, Brown says he learned about two decades ago that Louisiana has never sentenced a white teenager to death for killing a Black person. “That history goes all the way back to the 19th century,” Brown told The Louisiana Weekly.

Brown said that information was shared with him by attorneys working on the case of Shareef Cousin, a teen convicted in the murder of a white Slidell man and sentenced to death. Cousin was later freed after evidence of prosecutorial misconduct under the administration of then Orleans Parish District Attorney Harry Connick Sr. surfaced.

Norris Henderson, a New Orleans-based counselor working with Tyler to help ease his re-entry into society, told The Associated Press that Tyler’s first reaction after walking out of Angola was relief.

“For lack of a better word,” Henderson said in a telephone interview. “He said it felt as if a burden had been lifted. He went in there when he was a child, at 16. He’s coming out as an adult and that’s going to be challenging.”

On Oct. 7, 1974, Tyler was sitting on a bus filled with African-American students leaving Destrehan High School. As it passed a crowd of anywhere from 100 to 200 students and adults, some of those in the crowd yelled out racial slurs and threw rocks and bottles at the bus filled with Black students. In the midst of that chaos, a shot rang out and a 13-year-old white student named Timothy Weber was injured and later died at a hospital. While the initial search of the students and the bus turned up no weapon, a subsequent search by sheriff’s deputies found a gun in one of the bus seats.

With local and national efforts to end the prosecution of juvenile offenders as adults and a movement for criminal justice reform gaining momentum, things began to fall into place for Gary Tyler and the lawyers seeking his release.

The Associated Press reported that Tyler’s life sentence was recently declared unconstitutional. The St. Charles Parish District Attorney’s Office agreed to vacate Tyler’s conviction and Tyler agreed to enter a guilty plea to manslaughter and receive the maximum sentence of 21 years. Since he had already served more than twice that, Tyler was released from prison about 4:45 p.m. on April 29.

“It is long past time for Gary Tyler to come home,” said Tyler’s defense team, headed by attorney George H. Kendall, in a statement. “Hopefully this agreement will help to put this case to rest for Gary, the loved ones of Tim Weber and St. Charles Parish.”

Mary Howell, who represented Tyler and successfully obtained three Louisiana Pardon Board recommendations that his sentence be reduced, said, “This has been a long and difficult journey for all concerned. I feel confident that Gary will continue the important work he began years ago while in prison, to make a real difference in helping to mentor young people faced with difficult challenges in their lives.”

In court earlier on the day he was released, Tyler apologized to the Weber family for their loss and pain. “I accept responsibility for my role in this. I ask for prayers for the Weber family and for my family, and for healing in the days and weeks to come.

“While in prison, I tried my best to live a purposeful life and to become a responsible and caring adult. I am committed to living a meaningful and purposeful life outside of prison. I hope that I will be able to help others to find the way to peaceful resolution of conflict and to show compassion for each other, for the benefit of our community, our families and the world in which we live. Thank you.”

Tyler was convicted by an all-white jury in a 1975 trial his lawyers said was marred by racial prejudice and recanted witness statements. He initially was sentenced to death but that sentence was later reduced to life without parole in the wake of a 1976 U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

While he has maintained his innocence throughout his four-decade ordeal, Tyler had sought a pardon for decades amid objections from the Weber family.

St. Charles Parish District Attorney Joel Chaisson said during the April 29 plea deal hearing that the Weber family agreed to the plea deal.

The Advocate reported that the plea deal came on the heels of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that juveniles convicted of murder as adults must get a chance at parole.

Tyler’s defense team told The Advocate that their client had served as a volunteer for decades with Angola’s hospice care program. Former Angola Warden John Whitley and former Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot reportedly both supported his release.

Norris Henderson told The Associated Press that Tyler, who has a sister, plans to stay in Louisiana for an unspecified amount of time before eventually moving out-of-state. He was mum about Tyler’s future relocation plans, citing a need to give the former Angola inmate a chance to adjust to life outside of the penitentiary and time to adjust to the idea that he is now a free man.

“This is all new for him. Let’s just give him a few minutes to breathe,” Henderson said.

“As happy as I am for Gary Tyler and his family, I am mindful that his case wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg,” Ramessu Merriamen Aha, a New Orleans businessman and former congressional candidate, told The Louisiana Weekly. “I have no doubt that there are many more Gary Tylers rotting away in Louisiana prisons and jails and others waiting to be railroaded by ambitious prosecutors and district attorneys.

“Why do so many people who were harshly sentenced have to wait three or four decades to be released from the vice grip of Louisiana’s penal system?” Aha added. “And who’s going to fight for all the Gary Tylers, Shareef Cousins, Curtis Kyleses and John Thompsons who are still either seeking justice or trying to piece their lives back together?”

This article originally published in the May 9, 2016 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

Gary Tyler’s Long Road to Justice

Gary Tyler’s Long Road to Justice

The Progressive
By Lawrence Richard
May 11, 2016

When I visited Gary Tyler in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison in 2003, he had been there for twenty-eight years. He would serve another thirteen years before his release, on April 29.

We met in a cafeteria and spoke for several hours. It was against Angola rules to take notes, but Tyler said just be discreet, it will be OK. Everyone seemed to like him—guards, prisoners and staff. His story was shattering. I took four pages of notes.

Gary Tyler’s case is not unlike an unfortunately large number of other miscarriages of justice. He was convicted under highly questionable circumstances, and subjected to decades of indifference from the legal system. In the end, there is little reason to believe his conviction for a capital offense was based on anything more than his being in the wrong place at the wrong time—and being black.

On October 7, 1974, Tyler, then a 16-year-old high school student, was arrested and accused of shooting 13-year-old Timothy Weber to death in the middle of a race riot at Destrehan High School in Destrehan, Louisiana.

Tyler was nowhere near the school when the riot broke out. Amid a tense school integration, there had been a black-white fight at the school’s Friday night football game three days before, and with tensions running high that Monday morning, Tyler was sent home early. But he was spotted and picked up by St. Charles Parish police officer V.J. St. Pierre, who had had a previous run-in with Tyler. St. Pierre didn’t believe Tyler’s story about being sent home, so he drove Tyler back to Destrehan High School and dropped him in the middle of a full-blown riot. From my notes:

“St. Pierre said get out of my fucking car.”

School had been canceled for the day, and as students rushed onto hastily assembled school buses, a white mob of hundreds threw rocks, sticks, and bottles. Tyler boarded bus 91, and as the bus pulled away, a shot was fired. Outside the bus, Timothy Weber was shot in the head and killed.

The bus pulled over and all passengers were ordered off. That’s when things started to go very badly for Gary Tyler. He came to the defense of a friend who was being interrogated by police about a bullet necklace around his neck. From my notes:

“What are you messing with him for? I got one just like it.”

One sheriff’s deputy told Tyler to cross a ditch, and when he did another deputy accused him of trying to flee. He was arrested for “disturbing the peace” and taken to a police substation, where Tyler says he was beaten with a blackjack by V.J. St. Pierre, who was Timothy Weber’s third cousin, and by other police. Tyler told me that St. Pierre vowed to find out who killed his cousin. He said the officer pulled him by the hair and called him a nigger.

When I visited Gary’s mother, Juanita Tyler, in her brick, working-class Destrehan tract house, she told me she went to the substation looking for Gary and could hear his cries from a back room. But Gary refused to confess.

Tyler was tried by an all-white jury. His lawyer had never before tried a capital case and, by his own admission, spent little time with his client before trial. Without a confession, the prosecution depended heavily on testimony from other students on the bus, four of whom later recanted their testimony. Key witness Natalie Blanks, a jilted girlfriend of Tyler, had a history false confessions, but this never came out at trial.

Police admitted it took them three searches of the bus to find the alleged weapon, a big 45-caliber pistol. Bus driver Ernest Cojoe, a Korean War veteran, said there was no way a 45 was fired from bus 91. The gun was later revealed to have gone missing from a firing range frequented by police. No link between gun and bullet was ever established. The gun had no prints, and it later vanished altogether.

The prosecution said gloves Gary Tyler wore at the scene tested positive for gunpowder residue, but experts later said the trace amounts of alleged gunpowder were too small for positive identification, and incorrect chemicals were used in the tests, which were conducted by a lab tech who was later fired for giving false testimony in another case. Experts said the bullet produced as evidence had too little residual matter to have caused a head wound. And Tyler’s lawyer failed to object to the judge’s highly prejudicial jury instructions. The judge essentially told the jury it could presume guilt.

In 1976, Tyler’s sentence was reduced to life, but under Louisiana law one needs a pardon to get paroled from a life sentence—it is de facto life without parole. Four years after that, a federal appeals court said Tyler’s trial had been “fundamentally unfair,” but no relief was granted.

Over the years two parole boards recommended parole, and twice the same governors that handpicked the boards rejected their recommendations. Former Governor Buddy Roemer cited Tyler’s failure to complete his GED, but Tyler repeatedly requested entrance into Angola’s educational programs and was repeatedly told they were full.

Tyler’s case drew widespread attention. There were protests, a defense committee. Gil Scott-Heron and UB40 recorded songs about Tyler. Amnesty International urged parole. But all that faded, and the years and decades passed. When I visited Gary, gone was the young man whose photos cut as dashing a figure as any of Patrice Lumumba or George Jackson—Tyler was settling into middle age.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life sentences without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional. On January 25 of this year, the court made that ruling retroactive. And, finally, in March of this year the court certified Tyler under the ruling and sent his case back to Louisiana for resentencing. At that point the state cut a deal: Tyler pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received the 1974 maximum sentence, twenty-one years. Having already served forty-one years, Tyler was released immediately.

At long last—at age fifty-seven—Gary Tyler is a free man.

Lawrence Reichard is a freelance writer in Belfast, Maine.

The Horrible Ordeal of Gary Tyler: Wrong Place, Wrong Time … and Black

The Horrible Ordeal of Gary Tyler: Wrong Place, Wrong Time … and Black

By Lawrence Reichard
May 12, 2016

“Southern man, when will you pay them back?”

– Neil Young

I have waited 38 years to write the following words: Gary Tyler is a free man.

One of the greatest miscarriages of justice of the last 50 years ended April 29. After 41 years behind bars for a crime he did not commit, Gary Tyler was released April 29. In 1975, at the age of 17, Tyler was convicted of shooting and killing 13-year-old Timothy Weber in the middle of a race riot at in Destrehan, Louisiana. Tyler was sentenced to death, and became the youngest person on death row in the country. His sentence was later reduced to life, but under Louisiana law Tyler would need a pardon to be released – it was essentially life without parole.

Gary Tyler’s real crime was being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And being black. Gary’s jury was all-white. Case closed. The state of Louisiana stole 41 years of Gary Tyler’s life, and the state knew it every step of the way.

I first wrote about Gary in 1978, four years after his arrest and three years after his conviction, and in 2003 I visited and interviewed him in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison, his home for four decades.

In October 1974, Destrehan High School was in the throes of a violent court-ordered desegregation. A black-white fight broke out a Friday night football game, and the following Monday more fights broke out at the school. Classes were canceled and the school’s buses were called to take students home.

Tyler was nowhere near the school. He was miles away, heading for home. Tyler had a reputation for his outspokenness, and with tensions running high, Gary was sent home early. He almost made it home, and had he, his life might have been very different.

But St. Charles Parish Police Officer V.J. St. Pierre spotted Tyler, and unconvinced by Tyler’s story, St. Pierre put Tyler in his police car and drove him back to Destrehan High School. They landed in the middle of a full-blown riot. A white mob had descended on the school and was throwing rocks and bottles as students boarded buses to go home. As Tyler’s bus pulled away a shot was fired and outside the bus 13-year-old Timothy Weber was shot in the head and killed.

The bus stopped, and its passengers were ordered off. Outside the bus Gary defended a student who was being interrogated about a bullet necklace around his neck. Tyler was detained and taken to a St. Charles Parish police substation, and then things started to go very badly.

Tyler says he was beaten with a blackjack by St. Pierre, the murder victim’s uncle, and by other officers. Tyler’s mother went to the police station looking for Gary, and later said she could hear Gary’s cries from a back room.

Despite the police thuggery, Tyler didn’t confess. The next day Tyler was transferred to court for arraignment, and Tyler’s head was covered by a jacket so media wouldn’t see his bruises.

In a parish that was 25 percent black and a state that was one third black, Tyler faced an all-white jury. The prosecution relied heavily on the testimony of other students, all of whom later recanted their testimony, saying they had been threatened with prison if they didn’t cooperate.

Key witness Natalie Blanks, a jilted girlfriend of Tyler, had a history of grandiosity and false confessions. This was not revealed at trial. Gary’s bus was twice searched by police and nothing was found, but on their third try police “found” a big 45-caliber pistol they had somehow missed before. Later the gun vanished altogether. The bus driver, a Korea War veteran, said there was no way a 45 was fired from the bus. It was later revealed the gun had gone missing from a firing range frequented by police. Experts said the slug had far too little residual matter to have caused a head wound. The gun had no prints, and no gun-bullet connection was ever established. Police said gloves Tyler was wearing proved positive for gunpowder residue, but incorrect chemicals were used in the tests, the trace amounts of alleged residue were insufficient for an accurate test, and the man who conducted the test was later fired for giving false testimony in another case.

Tyler’s lawyer had never tried a capital case. By his own admission he spent little time with Tyler prior to trial, and he failed to object to the judge’s highly prejudicial jury instructions. The judge essentially told the jury it could presume guilt. Four years later an appeals court found the trial fundamentally unfair, but did not order a retrial. Gary Tyler paid 41 years for his lawyer’s incompetence and for the appeals court’s bizarre concept of justice.

Parole boards twice recommended parole for Tyler, and twice governors rejected the recommendations of their own handpicked boards. Governor Buddy Roemer cited Tyler’s failure to complete high school while in prison, but Tyler had repeatedly sought entrance into educational programs and had been repeatedly told they were full.

Finally, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life sentences without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional. Then in January of this year, fully four years later – who’s in a hurry? – the court ruled that its 2012 finding was retroactive, and in March the court sent Tyler’s case back to Louisiana for re-sentencing. At that point the state cut a deal. Tyler pleaded guilty to manslaughter and received the maximum 21 years. Having already served 41 years, Tyler was released immediately. Gary Tyler’s 41-year nightmare was finally over. At long last he was a free man.

But how many more Gary Tylers are out there, Gary Tylers we never hear about? And how many have been executed? Having followed Gary’s case for 38-plus years, I believe those who estimate that ten percent of those executed in this country are innocent.

Lawrence Reichard lives in Belfast, Maine, and can be reached at