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National Conference of Black Lawyers calls for Gary’s release

National Conference of Black Lawyers calls for Gary’s release

Gary Tyler was born in July 1958. Originally sentenced to death, he now is serving a life sentence without possibility of parole to comply with the 1976 U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling finding Louisiana’s death penalty unconstitutional. Gary was convicted in January 1977, at the age of 17, for first degree murder in the death of a 13 year old white boy that occurred when Gary was 16 years old. The murder of the 13 year old took place in a racially charged atmosphere, exacerbated by the Ku Klux Klan, when Louisiana was attempting to desegregate the schools as a result of the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. There are significant problems with Mr. Tyler’s conviction. Amnesty International, citing disturbing racial and political factors that occurred during the case, has deemed Gary Tyler a political prisoner.

Join the National Conference of Black Lawyers in honoring the spirit of Mandela on the occasion of his 93rd birthday in calling for the end to the woman-hunt for Assata Shakur and release of Gary Tyler.

Enacting forgiveness and redemption

Enacting forgiveness and redemption

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A passion play in prison

The Economist
By C.D.
May 15, 2012

IT IS painfully hot and dry in the rodeo arena at Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola, the largest maximum-security prison in America. Under a blazing sun American flags hang limply around the sand-covered enclosure, where 70 prisoners are acting out a unique version of “The Life of Jesus Christ”. By the time the three ingeniously constructed crosses are raised on a small hill of dirt, the physical torture of a slow death by crucifixion is palpable.

This is the first time a passion play has been staged at a state prison. The idea came from a meeting between Cathy Fontenot, an assistant warden at Angola, and representatives of Sir Jack Stewart-Clark, who had staged a version of this play at his Dundas Castle in Scotland. Burl Cain, the prison warden, gave the project his full approval. The head of the 18,000-acre prison for nearly two decades, Mr Cain firmly believes in the moral rehabilitation of offenders, and in the potential for redemption through Christian faith. He also believes that, like Jesus, some of the men here are innocent. Profits from the three early-May performances went to the Louisiana Prison Chapel Foundation.

The cast was drawn from Angola’s all-male population of nearly 5,330 prisoners and the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women at St Gabriel. Inmates from both prisons came to watch in separate sections of the stands; a swathe of blue jeans with white T-shirts for the men, jeans and blue shirts for the women. Most of the men in Angola are serving life sentences without the possibility of parole. Gary Tyler, the longtime president of the Angola Prison Drama Club and the play’s director, is one of them. In a trial that a federal appeals court found to be “fundamentally unfair”, he was convicted of murder and originally sentenced to death. Since his arrival at Angola in 1975 there have been repeated calls for his release.

Suzanne Lofthus, a Scottish director, travelled to Angola to coordinate the production. This took much longer than planned. Her first visit in 2010 was delayed when air traffic over Europe was grounded because of the Icelandic volcano. In 2011 the run was cancelled when floodwater from the hugely swollen Mississippi river threatened the prison. Barely four weeks before the May 2012 premiere, the original location had to be abandoned and the whole play restaged inside the rodeo arena.

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At the heart of this huge and unprecedented production were the members of the prison’s Drama Club. The group regularly performs, but this was their first time doing so out of doors and before a paying public. Preparation took place alongside their regular prison duties, such as caring for their ageing and dying fellow inmates in the prison hospice. There was no budget for the production. Sets and props were created on site by the prisoners from whatever they had at hand. Roman shields were made from painted prison-issue rubbish bins (but looked oddly authentic). The costumes were designed, dyed, sewn and trimmed using whatever fabric could be found or donated. The centurion was resplendent in scarlet and gold, his rippling six-pack breastplate and leather tunic an exquisite trompe l’oeil of dyed and hand painted linen.

A 7,500-seat open-air stadium is a challenging space for even experienced professional actors to fill. Yet the scene in which Jesus, played by a prisoner named Bobby Wallace who is incarcerated for armed robbery, declared “If any of you is without sin let him be the one to cast the first stone”, there was a moment of profound silence, broken only by birdsong and the sound of empty paper cups blowing off the bleachers in a welcome breeze, followed by exclamations of “wow”.

Some members of the audience were from local church groups, identifiable by their matching T-shirts bearing inspirational slogans: “Thank God I’m Forgiven”. Others were friends and family of the cast. The production was regularly punctuated with cries of “hallelujah”, “thank you lord”, “alright” and “yes lord Jesus” at key moments. Occasionally the audience muttered its disapproval when favourite passages were delivered without enough vigour.

Jimmie Patterson, who played both a shepherd and Pontius Pilate, discovered his gift for acting and singing after he was convicted of armed robbery. He sang in one of the play’s musical highlights when the shepherds serenade Mary with a powerful a cappella version of the Mark Lowry song “Mary Did You Know”. Then as Pilate he sits in judgment, sentencing an innocent man to death amid a baying crowd. (In a touch of pure Louisiana, the devil tempts Jesus with glittering purple and green Mardi Gras beads.)

Judas came in for a lot of heckling and some snide laughter from the audience. “Traitor” was shouted through most of his performance, and his contemplation of suicide was greeted with “go on do it”. But Levelle Tolliver, who is serving life for shooting a man in the head, managed to convey his character’s anguish, the complexity of his guilt; in so doing he took the audience beyond their knee-jerk reaction to the pantomime villain. If Jesus died to save everyone, then surely the audience could forgive even the man who betrayed him. When Mr Tolliver exited the arena, it was to loud and sustained applause.

It is a unique experience to watch prisoners re-enact the ultimate act of forgiveness in a setting where few will be granted parole. At Angola, the 89 men on death row are housed a short walk away, and the last execution by lethal injection was carried out as recently as 2010. When the centurion authorising the removal of Jesus’s body says, “That’s the governor’s signature all right”, the parallels felt plain.

The audience was silenced again when the centurion, contemplating the cross, says, “A mother should never have to see her child die”. The moment felt charged by its context, but also poignantly out of time. The silence was broken by the unintelligible crackle of a corrections officer’s radio.

Supreme Court strikes down mandatory life terms for juveniles

Supreme Court strikes down mandatory life terms for juveniles

The 5-4 decision invalidates laws in 28 states that required such sentences for young murderers. More than 2,000 prisoners could now receive new sentences or parole hearings.

Los Angeles Times
By David G. Savage
June 25, 2012

WASHINGTON — It is cruel and unusual punishment to send a young murderer to die in prison if a judge has not weighed whether his youth and the nature of his crime merited a shorter prison term, the Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The 5-4 decision struck down laws in 28 states that mandated life terms for juvenile murderers with no hope for parole.

The justices ruled in the cases of two 14-year-old boys, one from Alabama and one from Arkansas, who were given life terms for their roles in homicides. But the decision applies to all those under 18 who are sentenced under mandatory laws.

The ruling could lead to new sentencing or parole hearings for more than 2,000 prisoners around the country who committed homicides when they were young and were given mandatory life terms. The justices set a new constitutional rule that prisoners could cite in their appeals.

Monday’s decision does not free any prisoner, and it does not forbid judges in the future from imposing life terms on young killers. But it stands as a potentially far-reaching victory for those who have objected to imposing long prison terms on young offenders.

Speaking for the court, Justice Elena Kagan said the decisions of the last decade had established, or restored, the principle that “children are different” when it comes to criminal punishments.

“Our decisions rested not only on common sense — on what ‘any parent knows’ — but on science and social science as well,” she said. Juveniles are immature and are less deserving of the harshest punishments, she said.

In the case of young people who take part in a homicide, “a judge or jury must have the opportunity to consider mitigating circumstances before imposing the harshest possible penalty,” Kagan said. “We therefore hold that mandatory life without parole for those under age 18 at the time of their crimes violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on ‘cruel and unusual punishments.’ ”

Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor agreed.

The decision was the third in a decade that puts new constitutional limits on punishments for young criminals. All have come by 5-4 votes, with Kennedy joining the court’s liberal bloc. In 2005, the court abolished the death sentence for those under 18 who are convicted of murder. In 2010, the justices went further and said life terms with no parole were unconstitutional for juveniles who commit crimes short of murder.

The pair of cases involving 14-year-olds asked the high court to abolish life prison terms for such young offenders. But the justices opted for a narrower ruling that targeted only mandatory laws.

Chief Justice John G. RobertsJr.dissented. “Put simply, if a 17-year-old is convicted of deliberately murdering an innocent victim, it is not unusual for the murderer to receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole,” he said. The fact that 28 states have such laws prove it is not unusual punishment. “Perhaps science and policy suggest society should show greater mercy to young killers.… But that is not our decision to make.” Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas andSamuel A. Alito Jr. joined in dissent.

Alito also delivered a stinging dissent in the courtroom. He spoke of the “incredibly brutal” crimes perpetrated by 17-year olds, and he accused the majority of exposing “members of society … to the risk that these convicted murderers, if released from custody, will murder again.”

Kagan replied in a footnote that the court’s decision did not tell judges to ignore the “most heinous” crimes, but rather to reserve the harshest punishment for such crimes.

Bibliography: The Case of Gary Tyler

Bibliography: The Case of Gary Tyler

Legal Lynching in Louisiana, The Case that Refuses to Die
The Nation, March 12, 1989.

Tyler Seeks Pardon in ’74 Shooting
The Louisiana Weekly, May 6, 1989

New Doubts in ’74 Racial Killing
Houston Chronicle, June 17, 1989

La. Black Seeks Pardon, Still Denies Racial Slaying
The Atlanta Constitution, October 24, 1989

Why is this Man in Prison?
The Guardian, December 6, 1989

Pardon Decision in Racial Slaying Expected Tomorrow in Louisiana
New York Times, December 13, 1989

In Prison For 15 Years, Louisianan May Go Free
USA, December 14, 1989

The Long Road Back
The Angolite, January/February 1990

Roemer: Tyler Not Ready for Freedom
New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 26, 1990

A Tale of the New South
(It Reads Like the Old South)

Boston Globe, February 26, 1990

Rough Justice in Louisiana:
The Nightmare of Gary Tyler

The Glasgow Herald, September 26, 1990

Falling Through the Cracks
Village Voice, January 22, 1991

Putting Our Racist Past on Trial
Washington Post, March 19, 1991

So Why is He Still in Prison?
American Lawyer, June 1991

Roemer Denies Pardons to Prominent Convicts
New Orleans Times-Picayune, January 10, 1992

Gary Tyler’s Quest for Justice

Gary Tyler’s Quest for Justice

Sports figures are joining the crusade to free a Louisiana man convicted as a teenager of a murder he didn’t commit.

The Nation
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.

JOCKS 4 JUSTICE

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

Tommie Smith
1968 Olympic gold medalist

John Carlos 
1968 Olympic bronze medalist

Lee Evans
Olympic gold medalist

Etan Thomas
Washington Wizards center and author of More Than an Athlete

Jim Bouton
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.)

David Meggyesy
former NFL linebacker and retired Western Regional Director, NFL Players Association (NFLPA)

Jeff “Snowman” Monson
Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter

Toni Smith
former member of Manhattanville College Women’s Basketball team

Dr. Phil Shinnick
member of the 1964 US Olympic team

Bobbito Garcia 
co-editor of Bounce Magazine and NYC DJ

Dennis Brutus
former director of the South African Non Racialist Olympic Committee and professor emeritus of Africana Studies at the University of Pittsburgh

Doug Harris
executive director, Athletes United for Peace

Lester Rodney
sports editor, the Daily Worker, 1936-58

Rus Bradburd
former assistant basketball coach at the University of Texas El Paso and author of Paddy on the Hardwood: Journey Through Irish Hoops

Julio Pabón 
president and CEO of Latino Sports Ventures

William Gerena-Rochet
editor of LatinoSports.com

Dave Zirin
columnist for The Nation online and author of What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States

A long time for killing

A long time for killing

MWC News
by Michael Parenti
September 22, 2015

Today, across the nation, we witness homicidal violence delivered against unarmed people by law enforcement officers. These beatings and killings are carried out with something close to impunity. The cops almost always get away with murder. Moreover, these crimes are nothing new; they are longstanding in practice.

A study of police brutality in three major cities—conducted just about half a century ago in 1967—found that all the victims had one thing in common: they were from low-income groups. Other studies however showed that it often was enough just to be Black, even if middle class.

Take the case of Carl Newland, an African-American, 48-year-old accountant who happened to be walking by a newsstand that had just been robbed one evening in 1975. He was roughed up by the police, then brought before the newsstand clerk, who emphatically denied that Newland was the stickup man. Nevertheless, because of his “belligerent attitude” he was taken to jail and severely beaten by the police, according to statements by several prisoners. He died in his cell that same night. Consider some other cases.

About a half century ago, a Black man was forced to lie face down in a Detroit motel and a policeman cold-bloodedly pumped a bullet into his head.

–At about that same time, a 10-year-old Black boy walking with his foster father in Queens, New York, was killed by a plainclothes policeman who leaped from his unmarked car, firing away without identifying himself, shouting “Hey niggers!”

–A White “hippie” (as counterculture people were called in the late 1960s and 1970s ), finding his home suddenly surrounded by unidentified, armed men in Humboldt County, California, fled in terror out the back door only to be shot dead by county police and narcotic agents surrounding his house, the wrong house. Raiding the wrong house and shooting its frightened inhabitants became a regular pastime decades ago. “Fighting crime” and “fighting the drug war” were the call of the day.

–A 12-year-old Chicano boy in Dallas, arrested as a burglary suspect, was shot through his head by a cop.

–A Black shell-shocked Vietnam veteran was killed by two police on a Houston street as he reached into his pocket to take out a Bible.

–In Champaign, Illinois, in 1970, a frightened African American bookstore employee attempted flight when police menacingly approached his car. He was shot in the back. The culpable officer was indicted for voluntary manslaughter, released on a $5,000 bond and soon found “not guilty” by an all-White, middle-American jury.

–In Cambridge, Massachusetts, an Italian-American, working-class youth was beaten to death by cops in a police van.

–A New York policeman shot a 22-year-old Black college student who was standing with his hands in the air. Then the cop planted a toy pistol next to the victim’s body.

–A Chicano youth in Houston was taken to a secluded spot by cops, beaten until unconscious, then thrown into a bayou to drown.

–A Black youth, who was attempting to retrieve a basketball in a schoolyard, was shot through the head by Chicago police. One could go on and on with stories from years past about how the courageous Thin Blue Line repeatedly saved us with their endless killings.

Today, sparked by body-cam videos and social media, people are giving more attention to eye-witness accounts of such frightful events. Our Boys in Blue are being challenged by groups such as Black Lives Matter. But let us not overlook the many who were victimized by police during the late 1960s and 1970s and who are still with us, not merely in memory but in actuality. That is to say, a substantial number of those unjustly convicted long-ago are still in prison today. We all can name some of them: Mumia Abu-Jamal, Leonard Peltier, Herman Bell, Janine Africa, Hugo Pinell, and others. Consider also the lesser known cases. One that I have in mind is Gary Tyler.

In 1974 in Louisiana, a bus carrying Black children was attacked by a mob of Whites, some of whom were armed. According to the bus driver, a gun was fired from the attacking crowd. The shot missed the bus but killed a White youth in the surrounding crowd. The police arrived and forced the Black students out of the bus and to their knees. One of them, Gary Tyler (16-years-old at the time) was arrested for “interfering with an officer.” What he actually did was voice his objection to the deputy sheriff’s putting a gun to the heads of kneeling Black students.

The police claimed they found a gun on the bus but it curiously turned out to be a police revolver with no fingerprints. Nevertheless Gary was charged with being the possessor of the gun and murderer of the White youth. He was convicted by an all-White jury and sentenced to die in the electric chair.

The prosecution’s case rested entirely on two witnesses, both of whom recanted their testimony. Both charged that police had coerced them into fingering Tyler. The police had threatened to take one witness’ child away from her and charge her as an accessory to the killing. In any case, the judge refused to grant a new trial. Gary ended up with a life sentence and no chance of parole.

This 16-year old student, Gary Tyler, had attempted to calm a snarling officer who was uttering threats while pointing his loaded weapon at the heads of Black school children. Gary could sense the rage emitting from the trigger-happy cops. Over the years many of us have confronted police in one or another such situation. Nowadays we get numerous same-day recordings of “cops gone wild” with pile-on beatings and shootings of unarmed civilians. On each occasion the local police department announces, “The incident is under investigation.” The killer cop usually is given “administrative leave with pay,” or what some of us would call “paid vacation.”

The police tell us that the victim was reaching for his waist ban or was holding a cellphone in his hand that looked like a gun—certainly enough like a gun to perforate him with a deluge of bullets. The public hears the cop’s familiar story. When attorneys and media ask for more information, what we get is what the police department decides they want us to see. Before too long, the accused cop is kindly stroked by a White, suburban Grand Jury and an obligingly soft-handed prosecutor who has his own eye on a more elevated juridical or political office, and who therefore does not want to offend his war-against-crime White constituency.

Gary Tyler is now 57 years old. He has been in prison since he was 16. He will likely remain incarcerated for the rest of his life unless the numerous pleas from around the country and from countries around the world should start having some impact.

There are scores of prisoners of political note, and hundreds of others like Gary who were just in the wrong place or just speaking up against the potentially lethal behavior of police. They continue to be victimized by a law enforcement system capable of the most venal acts both within the community and in the courtroom, taking away whole lifetimes of innocent people by use of street executions or judicial killings or perpetual incarcerations—an abuse of justice that is beyond measure.

Michael Parenti’s most recent books are Waiting for Yesterday: Pages from a Street Kid’s Life (an ethnic memoir); and Profit Pathology and Other Indecencies.

Free at last?

Free at last?

Alice Through the Macro Lens
June 27, 2012

He always had a feeling it would always come down to just one person. One governor to agree to sign the release. One judge to admit his mistake. One man to cleanse his soul and confess his sin.

On Monday 25th June 2012, the Supreme Court of the United States of America held that “The Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.” He was a juvenile when he was sentenced for a homicide. The state mandated that he had to be sentenced to death or to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. This ruling applies to him. Five Supreme Justices concurred; four dissented. One vote separated the ayes from the nays. One person decided that potentially he can finally be free. If one person who said aye had said nay, this too would have been a dead end. But they didn’t. Five to four. The ayes have it.

His juvenile years are long gone, as is much of his adult life. His once defiant dreadlocks  thinned and turned to grey many years ago and have since been shaved off. But devotion to maintaining a disciplined regime to keep body and soul healthy has kept the spirit alive. His eyes still hold that flame of defiance.

For 38 years he maintained his innocence, but since the youthful age of 16, Gary Tyler has been imprisoned. Contained. Caged.

“Just say you did it, and we’ll let you out,” they teased. He would have none of it.

Three separate pardon boards recommended release. The state of Louisiana would have none of it.

Stalemate. Standoff. Each party digging in their heels and refusing to budge. The man refusing to admit any guilt; the state refusing to accept they may have made a mistake.

Now the Supreme Court has offered both parties a compromise. A win-win situation. Louisiana can release Gary Tyler from his nearly four decade long nightmare on a technicality. Louisiana won’t have to admit they made a gross error in legal and moral judgement, and Gary Tyler won’t have to rollover to the establishment. The Supreme Court, the highest court in all the land, has decided that sentencing a child under the age of 18 to a sentence of life without parole is “cruel and unusual punishment.” Nobody can contest it, because there is no court higher to lodge an appeal. The Supreme Court has decided that the cases involving all those children that received life without parole as a result of their state’s mandatory sentencing rules should be revisited. Neither party has to admit their failings. Neither has to admit any guilt.

The standoff can end.

The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

The Wrong Place at the Wrong Time

Maine Coast Now
By Lawrence Reichard
February 14, 2007

Two days ago I opened the New York Times and there it was, the first new article on Gary Tyler in years. Never mind Katrina, this man has been living his own personal hell in Louisiana for 33 years, two thirds of his life, and there is no end in sight. Gary Tyler has been buried alive by the state of Louisiana, and it’s all legal. Gary’s crime? Being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And being black.

In 1974, at the age of 16, Gary was convicted of killing a 13-year- old white boy during a race riot at Destrehan High School in Destrehan, La., 25 miles upriver from New Orleans. In 2003, I visited Gary in Louisiana’s infamous Angola State Penitentiary, Gary’s home for the last 32 years. At one point courts took over the administration of Angola because the prison’s personnel couldn’t seem to stop torturing their charges. Those days are over, but Gary Tyler’s nightmare lives on.

Years ago Gary’s case attracted considerable attention. Amnesty International expressed concern about it. Gary inspired songs by Gil Scott Heron and Aaron Neville. He had an active defense committee. But now, well into his fourth decade in prison, Gary has been all but forgotten. When I visited Gary, gone was the young, wiry, defiant kid depicted in a photo taken the day Timothy Weber died. Gone was the young radical militant with dreadlocks I had seen in other photos. I spent two days with a quiet, soft-spoken man approaching middle age who could stand to lose a few pounds and seemed to be well liked by fellow inmates and captors alike.

Gary wasn’t even at Destrehan High School when the riot broke out. He was hitchhiking with a friend when a police detective stopped them. Not believing Gary’s story that he had been suspended from school, the detective searched Gary, put him in his cruiser and drove him to Destrehan High, depositing him in the middle of a full-blown riot. The scene was ugly. Armed whites were descending on the school, which had been closed for the day because of the riot. Black students were scrambling to get on any bus they could just to get away. Gary rounded up some of his relatives and they boarded bus 91. As bus 91 pulled out, a white mob lined the bus’ path, yelled epithets and hurled stones at the bus. A shot rang out and Timothy Weber, standing outside the bus, was shot and killed.

Police stopped the bus and forced off all its students. They asked Gary’s cousin about a bullet necklace he was wearing and when Gary mouthed off about this he was arrested for disturbing the peace. Police searched the bus twice, looking for the gun that killed Timothy Weber. They even removed the seat cushions, but they found nothing. At trial, the driver of bus 91, a combat veteran, testified there was ‘no way’ a gun had been fired on bus 91.

They took Gary to a police substation, and that’s where things began to go seriously downhill for Gary Tyler.

According to Gary, his mother and several of his fellow students, all of whom were at the police substation, the police did a real number on Gary that day, beating him so badly they had to cover him with a jacket when they transferred him the next day amidst intense media coverage.

In the words of Bob Dylan, Gary’s trial was a pig circus ‘ he never had a chance. The state’s star witness was a young woman who had been jilted by Gary, was mentally ill and had a history of fabrications ‘ she had once fabricated her own kidnapping. Natalie Blanks later recanted her testimony, saying the police had threatened to send her to prison if she didn’t ‘cooperate.’ Two other witnesses against Tyler later recanted their testimony, alleging similar police threats. The alleged murder weapon, miraculously found after two unsuccessful searches, was later revealed to have been missing from a police firing range ‘ and then the gun disappeared, again. The state alleged that a trace substance found on Tyler’s gloves ‘was consistent with’ gunpowder, but the technician who claimed this later lost his job for lying in another case.

Tyler’s lawyer had never tried a capital case. According to Tyler, Jack Williams met with his client only 2-3 times, for a total of 2-3 hours, before trial, and Williams’ recollection is scarcely more flattering. Williams interviewed only two witnesses prior to trial and he failed to object to the judge’s faulty and extremely prejudicial jury instructions. Williams failed to request a change of venue, despite repeated requests by Tyler and his mother. With a busload of students to draw from, the defense called only six witnesses. Williams later went on to become an assistant D.A., a curious promotion for a man of questionable competence.

In a state that is one-third black, Tyler’s jury of 12 peers was all white. Gary was originally sentenced to death and became the youngest death row inmate in the country. But when the Supreme Court temporarily tossed out the death penalty, Tyler’s sentence was changed to life at hard labor.

Most states have moved to life sentences of determinate length, but not Louisiana. Under Louisiana’s draconian and outdated system, life sentences are of indefinite length ‘ at no point is the state required to grant a parole hearing. Tyler has twice been recommended for pardons but in both cases governors declined to follow the recommendations of their own pardon boards. And so Gary Tyler sits and waits for a miracle, much as he has for the last 33 years. It is high time for Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to provide that miracle by commuting Gary Tyler’s sentence to time served. Blanco’s address is: P.O. Box 94004; Baton Rouge, LA 70804.

Free Gary Tyler: Thirty Years of Injustice by Joe Allen

Free Gary Tyler: Thirty Years of Injustice by Joe Allen

Joe Allen is the author of a three-part series on Vietnam, co-author of “Leonard Peltier: Incident at Oglala Thirty Years On,” (ISR 44, November–December 2005), and is a frequent contributor to the ISR. The article is in the current issue of the September-October 2006 issue of the International Socialist Review.

GARY TYLER, at one time the youngest person on death row, turned forty-eight years old this July. He has spent thirty-two of those years in jail for a crime he did not commit. The case of Gary Tyler is one of the great miscarriages of justice in the modern history of the United States, in a country where the miscarriage of justice is part of the daily routine of government business. “This case is just permeated with racism all the way through it,” declared Mary Howell, Gary’s longtime attorney, “from the initial event all the way up to the pardon process.”

Yet, far too few people are aware of Gary Tyler’s case, which in the mid-1970s mobilized thousands across the country for his freedom and led Amnesty International to declare him a political prisoner. Over the last twenty years, hundreds of death row inmates and scores of others have been exonerated for the crimes they were falsely convicted of by racist and corrupt prosecutors. It’s long past time that Gary Tyler should have gone free.

In 1975, Gary Tyler, an African-American teenager, was wrongly convicted by an all-white jury for the murder of Timothy Weber, a thirteen-year-old white youth. Weber had been killed the previous year during an attack by a racist white mob on a school bus filled with African-American high school students in Destrehan, Louisiana. Tyler’s trial was characterized by coerced testimony, planted evidence, judicial misconduct, and an incompetent defense. He was sentenced to death by electrocution at the age of seventeen. On the first appeal of his conviction in1981, a federal appeals court said that Tyler was “denied a fundamentally fair trial,” but refused to order a new one for him. During this same period, the Louisiana death penalty was ruled unconstitutional. Gary Tyler’s death sentence was lifted and he was resentenced to life in prison. He is currently incarcerated in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison.

Racism in the high schools

In 1974, the tensions created by the resistance of whites to desegregation resulted in frequent clashes in which the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist organization, played a leading role.
—Amnesty International 

To understand the case of Gary Tyler, we must go back to a largely forgotten episode in American politics—the battle over the desegregation of public schools in the 1970s, and the eruption of racist violence that occurred in reaction to it across the country. In 1954, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, ordered the desegregation of public schools “with all deliberate speed.” The ruling was seen as a huge victory for the NAACP and those who advocated a legal strategy for ending Jim Crow in the United States. However, white dominated, racist local school boards in the South and the North (largely dominated by the Democratic Party) were able to avoid implementing the court order for years, if not decades. They did this through a variety of deceitful methods that included, among other things, the use of busing to keep schools segregated.

By the early to mid-seventies, the time had run out for most of these local school boards, and the federal courts ordered them to come up with plans to desegregate the schools. This almost always involved busing Black schools kids from their largely Black neighborhoods into all-white neighborhoods, where they often encountered racist mobs. In fact, some of the most cowardly and despicable displays of racism ever captured on film took place during this period of time. Boston was the worst example of this, if only because the city had an undeserved “liberal” reputation. When photos of the racist violence in Boston hit the front pages of newspapers across the country and the footage was televised on the network news, it shocked many people. White racist, mobs—led mostly by parents and egged on by local Democratic Party leaders—attacked school buses as they entered white neighborhoods with rocks and bottles. The white mobs broke the windows of the buses and injured the terrified Black school kids. The police, largely drawn from the same white neighborhoods, stood by or dragged their feet and intervened too late to stop the violence.

Boston may have been the most famous example of the “battle over busing,” as the media called it, but it wasn’t the only place where racist violence occurred. The opposition to court ordered desegregation spread across the country, particularly in such midsized cities as Detroit, Michigan; Louisville, Kentucky; Wilmington, North Carolina; and Richmond, California. Racist violence also spread to relatively isolated areas, like Destrehan, Louisiana, where Gary Tyler was a student at the local high school. The bigots tried to cloak their opposition to integration by claiming that they were only opposed to “forced busing” and were defending “neighborhood schools,” but the open display of Confederate flags and the racist filth spewed by politicians and “anti-busing” activists revealed their real agenda. They were encouraged by unelected Republican President Gerald Ford, who publicly supported them, and the Republican establishment, which began to realize that busing, along with a host of other issues, could be used to drive a wedge between the national Democratic Party and urban, white voters. This political opportunity was also not missed by Klan and neo-Nazi organizations, which recruited members and organized openly. In Louisiana, David Duke—Grand Wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), who in his college years paraded around in a Nazi uniform—placed himself at the center of the anti-busing movement.

Plantation country

Coming back to the South, it was like taking me out of the light and putting me into darkness
—Gary Tyler, 1990 

Destrehan is located in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. It is part of Louisiana’s old plantation country that runs along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and the state capitol Baton Rouge. While the plantations are almost entirely gone, the elegant mansions built by slave labor remain and are a major tourist attraction. “Plantation homes are to Louisiana what the crown jewels are to England—each is a sparkling gem, in an equally spellbinding setting, with a unique story attached,” according to one of Louisiana’s tourist Web sites. “The unique story” referred to is the Gone With the Wind version of history of the plantation South commonly found in the former states of the Confederacy. What’s missing from this unique story is the tyranny and misery of slavery and Jim Crow, and the persistence of racism that continues to dominate the lives of its Black residents to this very day. Oil replaced agriculture as the master of the Louisiana economy long ago. For the past seventy years, the economy of St. Charles and the other surrounding parishes has been dominated by the petrochemical industry, whose smokestacks and storage bins dot the landscape. Many oil refineries were built on or adjacent to the old plantations. Though a fabulously profitable industry, it has provided very little employment over the decades for Blacks or whites in the region.

Gary Tyler was born in New Orleans in 1958. In 1970, the Tyler family moved to St. Rose, about twenty miles upriver from New Orleans. Destrehan is a short five miles further north. His mother Juanita Tyler, worked as a domestic servant, and her husband Uylos, a maintenance man who held down three jobs simultaneously, worked to support a family of eleven kids. When he was twelve years old, Gary left Louisiana to live with his sister Ella in the Watts section of Los Angeles, now better known as South-Central. “There,” according to journalist Amy Singer, “he was exposed to people and ideas that hadn’t made their way to St. Rose: the Black Panthers; activist Angela Davis; the antiwar movement. Tyler attended rallies and began to develop a political awareness.”

Gary returned to Louisiana two years later, in 1972, and was not at all happy about it. “Coming back to the South, it was like taking me out of the light and putting me into darkness,” Gary lamented many years later. Living in Los Angeles at the height of the Black Power and antiwar movements was clearly exciting and interesting compared to living in an isolated area of the country like St. Charles Parish. The “darkness”—we can infer—was the grinding poverty and suffocating racism of small town Louisiana life. This is when his scrapes with the law began. Gary was arrested twice for burglary (one he says he’s guilty of and another he says he didn’t do) and spent seven months in a juvenile institution. He was also considered something of a radical; intelligent and outspoken, and someone who demanded respect from persons in authority. Gary Tyler, in short, was the type of young Black person that cops, particularly white cops in small Southern towns, really despise; a police officer years later would refer to him as a “smart nigger.”

Bus 91 
They were on the attack, man. It was panic.
—Terry Tyler, Gary’s brother 

When the crisis came at Destrehan High School, Gary Tyler already loomed large in the minds of key members of the local sheriff’s department as a “troublemaker”; but the chain of events that led to his arrest and persecution began years before October 1974.

The school authorities in Destrehan strongly resisted the pressure for school integration during the 1960s. The federal courts ultimately ordered the Destrehan authorities to begin desegregating their schools in 1968. That, however, didn’t put an end to the deeply ingrained racism of the white residents or their resistance to school integration. Racist violence continued for many years and appears to have escalated during 1974. According to Amnesty International, “In 1974, the tensions created by the resistance of whites to desegregation resulted in frequent clashes in which the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist organization, played a leading role.” The Friday night football games became a scene of frequent fights between the white and Black students of Destrehan High school. On the evening of October 4, one such fight broke out between Black and white students at the football game. The fight didn’t end that night. When Destrehan High School opened the following Monday (October 7), lunchtime fights between Blacks and whites continued, and several people including a teacher were stabbed. Later at Gary’s trial, Major Charles Faucheux of the Destrehan Sheriff’s Department testified that he watched as “one of the Black students…ran to the highway and probably about fifty white students chased after him.” The principal ordered Destehan High School closed and the Black students evacuated.

Gary Tyler, who was a sophomore at the time, was suspended by the school’s assistant principal that morning, though he says that he wasn’t involved in the fighting, and was sent home. Fatefully for Gary, he was picked up while hitchhiking home by Destrehan Deputy Sheriff V.J. St. Pierre (who also happened to be Timothy Weber’s cousin), who searched him, found nothing, and took him back to Destrehan High just as Black students were being evacuated from campus. Gary hopped on to Bus 91, along with sixty-five other Black students, as it began to pull out of campus. Bus 91 was immediately besieged by a white mob of 200 students (and by some accounts, non-students and parents) throwing rocks, bottles, and screaming racist epithets. Gary’s brother Terry, who was also on Bus 91, described the terrifying scene years later to journalist Adam Nossiter. “They were on the attack, man. It was panic,” Terry said. It was as if “you be out on a boat, and the boat’s sinking.” Suddenly, one student on the bus looked out the window and screamed, “Look at that white boy with that gun.” Seconds later the Black students hit the floor of the bus after hearing a popping sound, believing that someone was shooting at them. Outside the bus Timothy Weber fell to the ground wounded. Deputy St. Pierre rushed him to the hospital, where he later died from a gunshot wound.

The police stopped the bus, according to Patricia Files, another Black student, stormed onto it, and went on a “rampage.” They “started treating us like animals.” Then the police ordered all the Black students off the bus and searched them. It should be emphasized that no one from the white mob was stopped or searched by the police for weapons. Police searched all the Black students on the bus and didn’t find a gun. Three deputies searched the bus several times and, again, no gun was found. Then one of the sheriff’s deputies began to harass Gary Tyler’s cousin Ike Randall about why he was wearing a .22-caliber bullet on a chain. Gary said that there wasn’t anything wrong with that, and was arrested for “disturbing the peace.” He was placed in a police car and taken to the local substation of the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Department. Despite the fact that no gun was found on any Black student riding on Bus 91, and no weapon was found on the bus, all of the Black students were loaded back onto the bus and taken to the same sheriff’s substation. This was the beginning of Gary Tyler’s long nightmare. Within days of the death of Timothy Weber, a young David Duke, a rising star in Klan and neo-Nazi politics in the United States, arrived in Destrehan with what he called “security teams” to protect the white residents from “black savages” and “murderers.” He also laid a wreath at a memorial for Timothy Weber. This was the beginning of David Duke’s sometimes peripheral but always nefarious role in the persecution of Gary Tyler.

A legal lynching
The system worked fine. This is the prototypical Southern legal lynching.
—Mary Howell

Soon after arriving in the police station, the threats and the beatings began. According to Gary, St. Pierre returned to the police station and screamed, “I’m getting the motherfucker that did it.” A deputy handed St. Pierre a blackjack and he started beating Gary while another deputy joined in and began repeatedly kicking Gary in the back and legs. They kept beating him and asking him who killed Weber. Gary told them he didn’t know. Yet, St. Pierre kept at it, “Nigger, you’re going to tell me something.” Another sheriff’s deputy entered the room and warned them that people downstairs could hear Gary’s screams. One of those people was Gary’s mother, Juanita, who came to the station after hearing about the terrifying events at the high school and learning that her sons had been taken there. After all the other students had been released except Gary, she went into the station to look for him. “I could hear the sounds of the beatings,” she recounted in a 1990 interview. “It was like a smothered holler. The sounds of a person hollering. Sounds of licks. Bam, pow.” When she saw Gary later, the aftereffects of the beatings were clear. “He was just trembling.”

The cops weren’t able to beat a confession out of Gary, but others began to crack under pressure. The first was Natalie Blanks. She would eventually become the key prosecution witness against Gary. She was also his unhappy ex-girlfriend. Gary’s arrest for murder was based on her statements to the police. Blanks was a young woman with a lot of emotional problems who had been undergoing treatment at a local mental health clinic for several years. She also had a history of making false police reports, including one that she was kidnapped, a claim that was investigated by none other than Deputy Sheriff St. Pierre.

Another Black student on Bus 91 got a visit from the police that night. Larry Dabney shared the same bus seat with Gary Tyler. “It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me,” he said in his affidavit. “They didn’t even ask me what I saw. They told me flat out that I was going to be their witness. They started telling me what my statement was going to be. They told me I was going to testify that I saw Gary with a gun right after I heard the shot, and that a few minutes later hide it in a slit in the seat. That was not true. I didn’t see Gary or anybody else in that bus with a gun.”

Where did the gun that police claimed killed Timothy Weber come from? How did they find it? After all, the police searched the bus for three hours after the shooting and found nothing. Natalie Banks identified where Gary was sitting and the police removed the seat from the bus and, again, found nothing. Later, the police said they “discovered” the gun—a .45 caliber automatic—stuffed inside the seat that Gary was sitting on. According to Amy Singer, “A photograph of the seat taken before they removed the gun shows an obvious bulge.” The gun had no fingerprints on it and was later identified as stolen from a firing range that was used by St Charles Parish Sheriff’s deputies. What tied Gary to the gun? Gary wore gloves to school that day and they were confiscated by the police after his arrest and sent to the Southeastern Louisiana Regional Criminalistics Laboratory for testing. The gloves were apparently misplaced for several weeks before the head of the lab, Herman Parrish, finally claimed that he tested them and found gunpowder residue on them. No independent testing was done because all the alleged residue was used up by Parrish. In 1976, Parrish resigned from his position at the crime lab after he was accused of lying about test results in another case. The bullet that police claimed killed Timothy Weber was never even tested to see if it ever passed through a human body. Everything points to the likelihood that the police fabricated the gun evidence against Gary Tyler.

Planted evidence, coerced testimony, and faked test results; all that was needed was a compliant judge and jury, and the prosecutors certainly got them. The presiding judge at Gary’s trial was Judge Ruche Marino, who was identified by some press accounts of the time as being a former member of the White Citizens Council of Louisiana. In a region that is 25 percent African American, the trial impaneled an all-white jury. Gary Tyler’s inept defense attorney, Jack Williams, gave incalculable help to the prosecution. His total pretrial preparation consisted of meeting Gary once or twice and reading the grand jury transcripts. But this was only the beginning of his blunders and missteps; his general incompetence would plague Gary for years to come.

Judge Marino was consistently biased in favor of the prosecution. He even instructed the jury that they could presume Gary guilty before their deliberations. Gary’s trial lasted five days and the jury deliberation three hours before he was found guilty of first-degree murder, in November 1975. Under Louisiana law at the time, this was an automatic death sentence. His date of execution was set for May 1, 1976. At seventeen, he was the youngest person on death row in the United States.

Free Gary Tyler

Amnesty International believes that Gary Tyler was denied a fair trial and that racial prejudice played a major part in his prosecution. The racial and political context in which the offence and prosecution took place brings the case under Article 1(b) of Amnesty International’s statute, by which the organization seeks a fair trial for political prisoners.
—Amnesty International, 1994

Soon after Gary’s arrest, the Tyler family, led by his mother Juanita, threw themselves into organizing a campaign to stop his legal lynching. They received the crucial help of veteran Louisiana Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist and draft resister Walter Collins, who helped set up a New Orleans-based Gary Tyler Defense Committee. Collins and the Tyler family concentrated on getting Gary’s supporters to fill the court room during the trial, not only to show the judge and prosecutor community support for Gary but also to counter the influence of the KKK, who rallied outside for Gary’s conviction. After an execution date was set for Gary, there was an urgent need to turn the Free Gary Tyler Campaign into a national effort. The campaign got a boost when Natalie Blanks recanted her testimony, charging that the police had coerced her into falsely testifying. Gary’s new attorney, Jack Peebles, petitioned the court for a hearing to allow for the new evidence to be heard. Unfortunately, this meant going back to the very same Judge Ruche Marino. True to form, Marino ignored Blanks’ recantation and allowed Gary’s conviction to stand.

However, Blanks’ bombshell revelations, along with the obvious irregularities of the trial, provided more than enough of a basis for a national campaign, despite the fact that the national media mostly ignored the Tyler case. The New York Times, for example, ran its first article on the Tyler case in late March 1976, six weeks before his scheduled execution. One of the groups that most enthusiastically took up Gary’s case was the Red Tide, the youth group of the International Socialists. The Red Tide was a racially mixed, socialist organization that organized around high schools in Detroit, a city experiencing the same kind of violent opposition to school integration that had resulted in the persecution of Gary Tyler. For many of the Red Tiders, Gary Tyler became a deeply personal symbol of political persecution. In late April 1976, Gary’s lawyers won him his first victory. His execution was postponed, pending the outcome of his appeals in the Louisiana state courts. Meanwhile, Free Gary Tyler committees were being formed across the country. Juanita Tyler and Walter Collins spoke before a packed meeting of 350 people on June 13, 1976, demanding Gary’s freedom in Detroit. The late civil rights activist Rosa Parks was the main speaker and campaigned on Gary’s behalf. She was later joined by Reuben “Hurricane” Carter, the former boxing champion who spent a decade in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. The campaign to free Gary peaked during the latter half of 1976, when over 1,500 marched through New Orleans on July 24, and in November, when petitions with more than 92,000 signatures demanding Gary’s freedom were delivered to Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards. Even the American Federation of Teachers, which had a very mixed record on the issue of racism in the public schools, passed a resolution in support of Gary Tyler. In July 1976, while Gary’s state court appeals were still pending, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Louisiana death penalty was unconstitutional. Gary, along with everyone else on Louisiana’s death row, was spared.

While all of this was going on, Gary’s tormentors turned their attention to harassing members of the Tyler family and campaign supporters. Gary’s mother and father were fired from their jobs. On March 26, 1976, white “nightriders” (Klan supporters if not outright Klansmen) shot and killed Richard Dunn, a young Black man returning from a fundraising dance for Gary Tyler at Southern University in New Orleans. (The gunman was later captured and served ten years in prison.) Klansmen in full-dress uniforms drove openly through the Tylers’ hometown of St. Rose, while others, out of uniform, stalked members the Tyler family around their community. While there is no hard evidence that David Duke directed these activities, one cannot help but notice that these activities bore a striking resemblance to the “security” measures that he was calling for at the time. Gary’s brother Terry and Donald Files, an important defense witness, were arrested on charges of burglary. The alleged burglary happened while Terry was in Detroit speaking on his brother’s behalf at a public rally on May 16, 1976. Judge Marino set a $5,000 bond for each. In June 1976, Marino once again held another of Gary’s brothers, Steven, on $2,700 bond for a charge of “disturbing the police.” On January 27, 1977, the police invaded Mrs. Tyler’s home at gunpoint, arrested one of her son’s for robbery, and released him later without charging him. Despite the constant harassment and death threats, the Tyler family and the campaign persevered. Even at his high school, Gary’s classmates (both Black and white) organized the Gary Tyler Freedom Fighters.

The year 1977 was an important turning point in Gary’s case—unfortunately for the worse. On January 24, 1977, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Gary’s conviction. Short of a major breakthrough in the case, Gary was looking at years in prison. During the course of the year, the national campaign began to wane. Once the death sentence was lifted from Gary’s head, it became difficult to sustain the campaign. The initial urgency to save him from the electric chair was gone, and the campaign was ill prepared for what was going to be a long effort after the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld his conviction. This was exacerbated by the decline of the Left in the United States, in particular, the two organizations whose members had been the most committed to Gary’s campaign across the country.

Gary’s lawyer, Jack Peebles, continued the legal fight, filing a petition in 1978 for “biased instruction” by Judge Marino during Gary’s trial with the Federal Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. In 1980, the court ruled in Gary’s favor. It seemed that finally Gary would get some justice. However, the prosecutors appealed the decision. They were again helped by Gary’s first lawyer Jack Williams, who couldn’t remember why he hadn’t objected to Marino’s biased instructions at the trial. As a result the court didn’t order a new trial. “It is a shocking thing there is someone in prison in this country for whom the courts have said, ‘Your trial was fundamentally unfair, you’ve been denied the presumption of innocence, but we won’t give you a fair trial because your lawyer can’t remember why he didn’t object,'” Mary Howell declared in 1987. Since the late 1980s, Gary has made several efforts to get paroled, but in each case they fell victim to Louisiana’s racial politics. The most serious effort came in 1989–90, when the pardon board voted 3 to 2 to recommend that Gary’s sentence be commuted from life to sixty years, with eligibility for parole after serving twenty years. This was forwarded to then Democratic Louisiana Buddy Roemer, who rejected the pardon board’s recommendations. Facing a serious fight for the governor’s office from David Duke—Klansman now turned Republican, who garnered hundreds of thousands of votes in his campaigns for Louisiana governor and U.S. senator on a thinly disguised racist program—Roemer didn’t want to be outflanked on the right.

The most serious effort came in 1989–90, when the pardon board voted 3 to 2 to recommend that Gary’s sentence be commuted from life to sixty years, with eligibility for parole after serving twenty years. This was forwarded to then Louisiana governor, Democrat Buddy Roemer, who rejected the pardon board’s recommendations despite receiving petitions with 12,000 signatures calling for Gary’s pardon . Why did Roemer reject a pardon for Gary? One can speculate that Roemer expected to face David Duke in his upcoming bid for reelection in 1991—Klansman turned Republican, who garnered hundreds of thousands of votes in his 1990 campaign for U.S. senator on an openly racist program. Despite his effort to outflank Duke, Roemer was easily defeated in a three-way race. Duke would later be defeated by the notoriously corrupt Democratic candidate and former governor, Edwin Edwards.

Three decades on
I emphatically and unequivocally maintain my innocence as I did in 1974 and hope that one day justice will eventually prevail in this matter.
—Gary Tyler 

I just wish for the day he could be home. It’s been so long.
—Juanita Tyler, Gary’s mother, May 24, 2006

For the past three decades, Gary Tyler has been incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. The 18,000-acre penitentiary, nick-named “the farm,” is the largest maximum security prison in the country, housing 5,000 men. The Angola prison population is 75 percent Black, and 85 percent of those sentenced there will probably die there. Angola is built on a former slave plantation and has been running continuously since the end of the Civil War. Along with other infamous prisons in the South (like Mississippi’s Parchman Farm), “it is hard not to see…the entire penal system simply as revenge against Blacks for the South’s defeat in the Civil War.” Even to this day, slavery casts a long shadow over the Southern penal system, especially Louisiana’s. Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the country. For every 100,000 residents of the state, 816 are sentenced prisoners. Blacks make up 32 percent of Louisiana’s population, but they constitute 72 percent of the state’s prison population. While the life of prisoners inside of Angola is little better than slavery. Gary, for example, spent many years in solitary confinement because he refused to pick cotton for 3 cents an hour.

How is it possible that, given all the evidence of his innocence and the blatantly racist nature of his frame-up, Gary Tyler is still in prison? Gary’s case takes us straight into the heart of darkness of the Louisiana criminal justice system. Powerful political forces have conspired to keep him behind bars. Both racism and political persecution have played their part. In 1990, the Louisiana attorney general argued against a pardon for Tyler, because he has “demanded that he be allowed to correspond with socialist and communist publications like the Socialist Worker.” Gary Tyler is a political prisoner and nothing less than a serious fight by those who are outraged and want to support him will win Gary his freedom.

There has been a great reversal in the rights of death row prisoners. According to author David Lindorf

The Supreme Court, and the Clinton administration’s 1995 Effective Death Penalty Act have combined to make it almost impossible to appeal cases based upon new evidence. Any appellate defense lawyer will tell you that in both capital and non-capital cases, the highest court, and the appeals courts, too, generally only will grant new trials where there has been a procedural error. They don’t give a damn about new evidence, recanted witnesses, etc. Those kinds of things, that actually prove innocence or corrupted trials, have to be beyond overwhelming to win a new trial.

The draconian character of the legal system in capital cases has only gotten more pronounced since the so-called war on terror under George W. Bush.

Yet the last decade has also seen a sea change in public attitudes towards the criminal justice system. Hundreds of innocent people have been released from prison, after it was shown that they were innocent or received unfair trials. But far too many remain in prison. “Don’t forget about Gary Tyler because there are thousands more like him,” declared Terry Tyler, Gary’s older brother. Hurricane Katrina has ripped the mask off of racism and class oppression in this country generally, and in Louisiana in particular. While the tens of thousands of mostly Black, working class and poor residents of New Orleans fight to return to their homes and rebuild their shattered lives, they will continue to be confronted by the forces of racism and class oppression that seek to turn the city into a jazz and blues version of Disneyland. Louisiana’s already racist and corrupt judicial system will be increasingly put at the disposal of creating this “new” New Orleans. In all of these upcoming battles, the fight to free Gary Tyler should be part of them. Gary Tyler should not be forgotten.

Thanks to Larry Bradshaw, Paul D’Amato, Michael Letwin, David Lindorff,
and the Tyler family for their help in writing this article.

This article originally appeared in the September / October 2006 issue of International Socialist Review

Legal Lynching In Louisiana The Case That Refuses To Die

Legal Lynching In Louisiana The Case That Refuses To Die

By Adam Nossiter
Originally publised by The Nation Magazine 
March 12, 1990 

Lynchings in the Deep South are rare these days. Respectable Southerners never much cared for them anyway, although they recognized their usefulness as a way of keeping blacks in their place. Still, lynchings were awfully messy. So over the years, the starched shirt South developed a cleaner, more formal way of carrying out this larger social purpose. It used the court system. Small-town Southern justice has proved as adept as any lynch mob at victimizing blacks.

This tradition, unlike the more violent one, has persisted to the present day. In the past few months, the attention of civil rights advocates in Louisiana has focused on a case that has long been considered one of the more egregious examples of Southern legal lynching. It began in this isolated, working-class Mississippi River town fifteen years ago, during violent upheavals surrounding the integration of the local high school.

On October 7, 1974, a furious mob of whites shouting racial epithets and hurling rocks and bottles surrounded a school bus full of terrified blacks from Destrehan High School. A shot rang out. On the sidewalk, a 13-year-old white boy, Timothy Weber, fell to the ground, mortally wounded. Gary Tyler, a 16-year-old black with a reputation as a troublemaker, was sitting on the school bus that day. He was arrested, convicted of Weber’s shooting and sentenced to die in the electric chair by an all-white jury. He became the youngest person on death row in the United States.

In 1977 he was resentenced to life in one of the country’s grimmest prisons, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Today, Tyler still becomes enraged when he talks about his case, unlike many prisoners who proclaim their innocence. Racism sent him to Angola, he insists. Over the years, a substantial number of people have come to agree. His case was briefly an international cause celebre. Amnesty International listed him as a political prisoner, hundreds of people marched and rallied in New Orleans in 1977 demanding his release and Gil Scott-Heron and UB40 have written songs about him.

Last spring his longtime attorney, Mary Howell, actively working on the case after a lapse of years during which she couldn’t afford to devote all her time to it, appealed a second time to the Louisiana Pardon Board for Tyler’s release. In mid-December, the pardon board recommended that he be eligible for parole in five years. That put his fate in the hands of Governor Buddy Roemer, and Tyler’s supporters were not overly optimistic. Roemer has been more reluctant to grant pardons than previous Louisiana governors. Out of 597 pardon recommendations that have piled up on his desk in the past two years, Roemer has granted only 140. Sure enough, on January 24 Roemer rejected the board’s recommendation, saying he was still convinced of Tyler’s guilt. “I do want to send a signal that we will be fairly tough and consistent”‘ said the Governor, who faces a difficult re-election campaign next year. The state, in arguing against a pardon for Tyler, noted that he has “demanded that he be allowed to correspond with socialist and communist publications like the Socialist Worker.” Mary Howell intends to file another appeal with the pardon board.

The Tyler case began with a race riot and proceeded through brutal beatings and apparently coerced testimony by white sheriff’s deputies. In the turmoil after young Weber’s shooting, David Duke, then a 24-year-old rising star in the Ku Klux Klan, came down to St. Charles Parish with a posse of “security teams” to protect the populace from what he called “savage blacks and murderers!’ The affair ended with a trial, which the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit later called “fundamentally unfair” because Judge Ruche Marino told the jury it could presume Tyler’s guilt. The appeals court nonetheless rejected Tyler’s appeal on technical grounds.

For fifteen years, evidence has been accumulating that suggests Gary Tyler was not the person who shot Timothy Weber. In the past year alone, Howell has brought to light much new evidence. A December 1974 crime-lab report she uncovered, which was never shown to the defense at Tyler’s 1975 trial, revealed that the bullet that supposedly killed Weber had no blood on it. This is highly unusual in cases involving a head wound. The chemicals that state criminologist Herman Parish said he used to determine the presence of gunpowder on gloves worn by Tyler were the “wrong ones” and are never used by professionals in such tests, according to an affidavit by Ronald Singer, Parish’s successor as director of the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office Crime Laboratory. Moreover, accurate tests for gunpowder require the presence of whole flakes. Only “dark specks” were found on Tyler’s gloves, Singer’s affidavit said. Not long after Tyler’s trial, Parish was forced to resign because he had falsified test results in another case.

Last June, Howell’s investigation located the man who had been sitting next to Gary Tyler on Bus 91 that day in October 1974. Larry Dabney, then a frightened 16-year-old, helped send Tyler to jail by testifying that he saw his schoolmate hide a gun in a bus seat immediately after the shooting. Dabney told the investigator he had been waiting fifteen years to tell the real story.

Late on the night of October 7, 1974, deputies picked up Dabney at his parents’ house and took him down to the sheriff’s office. “I’ll never forget what happened next.” Dabney told Howell’s investigator. “It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me. The deputies didn’t even ask me what I saw. They told me flat out I was going to be their key witness. They started telling me what my statement was going to be,” Dabney said. “They told me I was going to testify that I saw Gary with a gun right after I heard the shot, and that a few minutes later I had seen him hide it in a slit in the seat:’

It was a good story, but it was not true, Dabney now says. “I didn’t see Gary or anybody else in that bus with a gun:’ But Larry Dabney was “scared to death” at the sheriff’s office. The deputies told him he was going to “sign the statement they put together for me or I was going to jail for ten years.” He signed the statement. Tyler went to jail.

Mary Howell insists the handling of the Tyler case was not unusual. “The system worked fine. This is the prototypical Southern legal lynching.”

The desolation of the town of Destrehan adds plausibility to Howell’s claim of a lynching. Lynchings typically occur in places cut off from urban, civilizing influences. There is an air of isolation about the nondescript tract houses that make up the communities that hug the Mississippi River at the edge of Cajun country. They lie in the shadow of the oppressive fifteen-foot-high levee, which runs for miles along the river and seals them off from the outside world. New Orleans, only twenty-five miles downriver, seems very far away. Local historians say the river parishes, of which St. Charles is one, have never been influenced much by the tolerant, easygoing city.

A giant Shell petrochemical plant has loomed over these communities in one form or another since the second decade of this century, but it has never provided much employment. An older monument here, the white-columned, eighteenth century Destrehan plantation house beneath the levee, tells more about ancient sources of wealth and poverty. This was sugarcane and farming country, and when the agricultural economy collapsed earlier this century, it left behind poor whites and poor blacks, who competed with each other for jobs. Unlike many other Southern communities, there were no “segregation academies” to which whites could flee when integration came along. Whites and blacks would have to get along at Destrehan High. In fact, they sparred constantly, and every Friday there were fights.

Tyler himself was caught in a chain of circumstances that landed him squarely in Angola. It began on the evening of Friday, October 4, 1974, at that locus of small-town Southern hopes and aggressions, the high-school football game. A fight broke out between blacks and whites. What sparked it is unclear, but when school opened the following Monday the students had not forgotten. Taunts were traded. One student was stabbed with a wig comb, another with a knife. A teacher was also stabbed.

By the time the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Department and the state troopers arrived, blacks and whites were in two groups, cursing each other and throwing rocks and bottles. Violence was in the air. Maj. Charles Faucheux of the sheriff’s department coolly looked on as “one of the black students … ran to the highway and probably about fifty white students started chasing him:’ as the major testified in court papers. “I went back into the building … and called for more help:’ Eventually, the black students, including Gary Tyler, were herded onto buses to be sent home.

But for one sheriff’s deputy who was to play a fateful role in Tyler’s arrest and prosecution, the young man might not have been on Bus 91 that day. He had been sent home earlier by the principal after being involved in a confrontation with white students. But as he was hitchhiking with a friend, he was stopped by Deputy Sheriff V.J. St. Pierre. St. Pierre had arrested Tyler on a burglary charge the year before and considered the young man to be a “smart nigger,” as he later called him. Tyler, the son of a service-station attendant and a domestic worker, was known for being outspoken in school. On this day St. Pierre searched Tyler and found nothing, but suspected him of playing hooky and drove him back to the school.

After the fighting started Tyler, along with other blacks, ran for the school buses to escape the menacing mob. As Bus 91 pulled out, a crowd of 200 whites surrounded it, throwing rocks and bottles and yelling epithets. The students on Bus 91 were terrified, as Tyler’s brother Terry remembered in a recent interview. “They were on the attack, man. It was panic”‘ he said. It was like “you be out in a boat, and the boat’s sinking. You can’t see the land:’ All of a sudden, the students heard a loud popping noise. Some hit the floor of the bus. ‘They were screaming and hollering” in fear, Tyler says. The sheriff’s deputies told the bus driver to stop, and all the students were ordered out. The deputies clambered onto the bus and “started treating us like animals:’ remembers Patricia Files, a student. It was like they were on a rampage:’ Meanwhile, the crowd outside had become quiet. Timothy Weber had been hit by a bullet.

St. Pierre happened to be Weber’s cousin. He rushed the young man to the hospital, but it was too late. Back at school, in the turmoil after Weber’s shooting, Gary Tyler had been arrested for trying to intervene when a deputy was harassing a black student. He was brought to a St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Department substation. There, the enraged St. Pierre, a Vietnam veteran who had lost a leg in the war, was determined to find his cousin’s killer. “I’m getting the motherfucker that did it,” Tyler remembers him screaming. A deputy handed St. Pierre a blackjack, and he proceeded to beat Tyler systematically on the shoulders, knees and face. “So he ordered me to take off my pants; said he wanted to see what a black ass looked like,” Tyler said in a deposition. Another deputy kicked him on the legs and in the back. St. Pierre stopped only when other deputies cautioned him that people downstairs could hear Tyler’s cries.

One of them was Juanita Tyler, the young man’s mother, who had gone to the sheriff’s substation to find her son. “I could hear the sounds of a beating:’ she recalled in a recent interview. “It was like a smothered holler. The sounds of a person hollering. Sounds of licks. Bam, pow.” She saw her son not long after the beating stopped. “He was just trembling,” she said.

Tyler refused to confess, but the deputies did not need his confession. At least five black students said they had seen Tyler holding a gun, and one testified that Tyler had fired the gun into the crowd. Natalie Blanks, 14 at the time, was the prosecution’s key witness. Tyler’s arrest for murder was based on her statement, but there is much about her personal history that raises questions.

Blanks was Gary Tyler’s jilted former girlfriend. She had been undergoing treatment at a local mental health clinic since 1968. St. Pierre was aware she had previously made three false crime reports, including a claim that she had been kidnapped, which he investigated. Her mother said, “She is just an exaggerating person whose word is not dependable.”

A year after Tyler’s trial, Natalie Blanks said that sheriff’s deputies had forced her to incriminate Tyler. She had never seen Tyler with a gun. But Judge Marino was not impressed by her recantation, nor by evidence that she had a history of mental illness. “The Norco Mental Health Unit has treated almost maybe 99 percent of the population over here in St. Charles and St. John and Jefferson’ ” the judge said. Another student on the bus, Loretta London Thomas, also recanted. The deputies had threatened her with jail unless she incriminated Gary Tyler, she said. She is thus the fifth witness, along with Dabney, Blanks, Files and Michael Campbell, to insist that sheriff’s deputies forced testimony incriminating Tyler.

Ten years ago Howell, in preparing Tyler’s appeal to the pardon board, asked to see the .45 semiautomatic introduced at the trial as the weapon that killed Weber. St. Charles Parish authorities said they couldn’t find it. Ten years later it is still missing.

The gun has had an interesting history. For three hours after Weber’s shooting, deputies searched the bus looking for a murder weapon. They found nothing. Then Natalie Blanks identified the seat Tyler had been sitting in. Deputies took it out of the bus, searched it and found nothing. Later, however, they said they had discovered the gun stuffed inside a long slit in the seat. It had no fingerprints on it. The gun was identified as one stolen from an indoor firing range in the suburb of Kenner, a range frequented by St. Charles Parish deputies.

Even if a gun was fired from Bus 91, the bus driver, a Korean War veteran named Ernest Cojoe, is certain it could not have been a .45. ” If it was fired within the school bus, somebody’s eardrums would have been busted in a closed bus:’ he said in a deposition. “I didn’t hear any shooting off of my bus.”

Fifteen years after Tyler’s conviction, the prosecutor, Norman Pitre, has no doubt that he got the right man. He has heard about the new evidence Howell has come up with. It is all “fantastic suppositions’ ” he said. Sitting in his law office in the desolate river town of Luling, Pitre said, “I’ve seen nothing to make me doubt the accuracy of the conviction.”

Across the river in Montz, former St. Charles Parish Deputy St. Pierre limps to the front door of his family’s welding operation to meet a reporter. There is an angry look on his face. A short, balding Cajun, he doesn’t want to talk about the Tyler case. He and his ex-colleagues in the department have been smeared enough, he says. The renewed attention to the case “stinks ” he says. “The only one benefiting is his mama:’ St. Pierre limps away. In a television interview last summer he denied beating Gary Tyler.

There is a police photograph of Gary Tyler and the other black students on Bus 91 taken shortly after deputies had ordered all the students off on the day of the shooting. He is sassing the camera, arms held out from his sides defiantly, a rebellious grin on his face. Up at Angola, after fifteen years of prison life, Gary Tyler is still defiant. “I knew I was innocent:’ he tells a visitor angrily. “Do you understand? I believed in the judicial system. I just hope that no one else goes through what I went through. I look at it like this…. My case is a symbol for many blacks. Knowing what happened to me is something that systematically occurs to blacks around the United States, and particularly the South. It makes a statement itself. I only hope that what happened to me would never happen to anyone again.”