Once on death row, ex-inmate helps teens

Bay State Banner
By Gus Martins
June 29, 2022

High school conjures memories of gridiron football, senior prom and the start of lifelong friendships for many. Not so for 63-year-old Louisianan Gary Tyler.

In a blink of an eye in 1974, an attack by whites in the middle-class town Destrehan in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, against bused-in black students from neighboring St. Rose turned Tyler’s young life into a helter-skelter, leaving the public school sophomore the country’s youngest-ever death row inmate.

The ensuing horror cost him 42 years of his life in the notorious Louisiana State Prison at Angola, sentenced to die for a murder he maintains he never committed. His life was spared only by a Supreme Court decision in 1976 ruling the death sentence unconstitutional.

Mercifully released in 2016, Tyler relocated to Los Angeles, where he counsels youth as a lead outreach and engagement support worker, using knowledge and wisdom that today serves also as the foundation of his guest speaking appearances.

Throughout it all, he has espoused little trace of bitterness, instead exhibiting grace and humanity while speaking on college campuses and other stages.

“I was 17 when they tried me, but I was 16 when all of this happened,’’ Tyler recounted last week in a phone interview. “That was part of their interrogation. It was like they water- boarded people in Guantanamo Bay and they got people confessing to kill Jesus Christ. But the thing is, they didn’t get any confession out of me. I didn’t have anything to confess to. I guess that’s one of the things that perplexed them. They couldn’t get me to sign any statements against anybody. They couldn’t get me to sign any statements against myself.’’

The St. Charles Parish ordeal, having its origins in the same court-enforced busing taking place in Boston at the time, occurred at the end of the day on Oct. 7, 1974. Tyler was one of a group of black students on a bus that was spontaneously attacked by an enraged anti-busing mob.

In the frenzy, a 13-year-old white student named Timothy Weber was shot dead. Another white student was injured. The murder case against Tyler rested on the statements of four witnesses, who subsequently recanted their testimonies. Even the bus driver said that no shots were fired from inside the bus.

“Believe me, it took me decades to really put a finger on the pulse of what was really going on at that time,’’ Tyler said. “Because when it happened, I really didn’t understand the racial implications of everything that was taking place. I just knew that we were bused into a neighborhood that we were not welcome. Tensions were high. I couldn’t tell you what was behind it, whether racism or other things.’’

A first search of the bus produced no weapon. All the Black students were then searched outside the bus — and again, no weapon. No one in the crowd of assailants was searched. Tyler wasn’t even a suspect at first. Police later suspiciously produced a weapon that was said to be taken earlier from a firing range and had been used by officers for practice.

The case, conducted by a regional and incestuous law enforcement police and court system, took just over a year to be tried. It ended with a conviction and death sentence for a teenager not yet old enough to legally drink liquor or vote.

In those days before CNN, internet and social media, it took deeply penetrating songs by the late Gil Scott-Heron (“Angola Louisiana”) and British reggae band UB40 (“Tyler,” sung by Alistair Campbell), to help spread the word of one of the great miscarriages of justice in the modern history of the United States.

Surviving prison

Amnesty International and the news outlet Democracy Now, in addition to a three-part series by the New York Times’ columnist Bob Herbert and various other media and rallies in cities across the country, helped to keep alive the flame of hope. Tyler’s mother, father, 10 siblings, and extended family and friends also never gave up on the goal of a new trial and seeing the conviction overturned.

Merely staying unhurt in the dangerous maximum-security prison was a major concern. But Tyler said older inmates became his protectors. In prison, he joined the drama club and participated in performances over the years, highlighting myriad social issues. Joining the Jaycees he said, helped him to shed inhibitions and become a highly-proficient speaker. He also learned knitting.

“I had no other choice than to pursue an education inside prison,’’ he said. “Because it helped me to better understand and deal with my ordeal. It helped me to better express myself and to give an effective argument against the things that weren’t true surrounding my case. You learn all of that when you are fighting for your life and fighting for what’s right.’’

Back in 1974, Tyler’s long ordeal most likely emanated from a remark he made during the search, when police asked his cousin about a chain he wore around his neck. Tyler interjected, telling the cop that “it had nothing to do with anything.’’ The old Southern taboo of a young Black male speaking out perhaps doomed him. He was apprehended, taken to the police substation, beaten mercilessly and, as it appears, subsequently framed.

“I guess due to ignorance and stubbornness, I believed in the American Dream and the American justice system,’’ he said. “As young as I was, I believed the truth would prevail. They are framing you for something that you didn’t do, they almost murdered [me] by practically beating me to death in the substation. I still believed that the system was fair. And I believed that I was going home. I was wrong.’’

At Viterbo University, a Franciscan Order institution in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Keith A. Knutson, a professor of political science in the department of ethics, culture and society, and his colleague David Gardner, have brought Tyler to their campus on two occasions. A third visit is in the planning stage. Tyler, each time, has left an indelible impression.

“He has a gift and a real human connection,” Knutson said. “And, of course, he must have had that in prison. Prisoners are human. I think that’s one of the takeaways in getting to know Gary and listening to him — his humanity. He could explain some of his own prison experiences and, of course, of unjustly being sentenced to death.’’

Tyler came to Viterbo the first time in September and spent a week there, Knutson said. 

“In addition to an address before about 700 people, he visited classrooms, a couple of churches, a criminal justice council, the local DA, several judges and two dozen other people on the committee,” Knutson said. “They sent me messages and said that his was the best conversation they’d ever had.”

Over the years, Tyler’s case reached and was approved several times by the local pardon board, but often died by the inaction of three separate Louisiana governors. Once for not yet having the GED he was working toward. In another instance, his pardon was denied four days before a governor left office. “I guess, as they say, I was a political liability for them,’’ Tyler said.

During his imprisonment, his dad Uylos, mom Juanita and some of his siblings passed away. Juanita, who died in 2012. throughout it all remained a major point of reference in his life and never let her son give up.

“I’d never say that I lost hope,’’ he said. “But I became disillusioned. I felt that the way things were going, would I ever get out? But I knew that if I just gave up would mean that I was surrendering, capitulating to a system that went out of its way to falsely convict me. So I felt in a stubborn way I couldn’t give them that satisfaction. Besides, I had a mother, and she would not take that. ‘You giving up? No!’”

His case had long been a stain on Louisiana. It took a younger, new breed of district attorney, Joel T. Chaisson, who had grown up knowing about the case, to help facilitate a way out for Tyler.

“My case at that point was a drag on the parish itself,’’ Tyler said. “You had people who felt like they want to move forward, not be stuck dealing with a relic of the past. They wanted people to believe they are progressive and changing with the time. What they did was drop my conviction all the way down to manslaughter. After all the years I served, [Chaisson] felt that it would be cumbersome to go before a parole board or put me on probation, and with the reviews he got from prison officials, that ‘this guy here is a model prisoner, he was one of the best and hasn’t given us any trouble,’ he felt he didn’t want to complicate my life like that.’’

Gary Tyler, wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder, speaks at UWL

The Racquet Press
Sophie Byrne, Social Justice Reporter
September 20, 2021

Gary Tyler was 16 years old when he was wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder, sentenced to death row, and sent to maximum-security Louisiana State Penitentiary. On Tuesday, Sept. 14, Tyler presented to a full auditorium at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Tyler described him over 41 years wrongfully imprisoned and touched on topics such as racism, rehabilitation programs for convicts, as well as what it was like to be on death row.

Tyler was introduced by Vice President of Black Student Unity (BSU) Jaiya Edwards, as well as Nicholas Bakken, a professor in the Sociology and Criminal Justice department. The talk and subsequent Q&A were additionally co-sponsored by the College of Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities; the Division of Diversity and Inclusion; Multicultural Student Organizations Leadership Programs; and the Office of Multicultural Student Services.

The audience made up of primarily students but including faculty and staff and community members, sat silently as Tyler described the events that led to his incarceration. According to a 2007 New York Times op-ed, “Mr. Tyler, a sophomore at Destrehan High, was on a bus filled with black students that was attacked on Oct. 7, 1974, by a white mob enraged over school integration. A shot was fired and a 13-year-old white boy standing outside the bus collapsed, mortally wounded. Mr. Tyler was arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace after he talked back to a sheriff’s deputy.

Although the bus and its passengers were searched and no weapon was found, Mr. Tyler was taken into custody, savagely beaten, and accused of committing the murder. A gun was found during a subsequent search of the bus and witnesses were rounded up to testify against Mr. Tyler. It turned out that the gun (which has since disappeared) had been stolen from a firing range used by officers of the sheriff’s department. All of the witnesses who pinpointed Mr. Tyler would eventually recant, saying they had been terrorized into testifying falsely by the authorities.”

Tyler recalled having hope, even after being baselessly accused and physically beaten by authorities. “After all I went through, I still believed in the criminal justice system. I was taught to believe the criminal justice system was the best system in the world, that I needed to believe. My mother, my parents believed that. The truth will come out, you will be exonerated. I believed that. When I went to court, I was confident they would find me not guilty. “

Despite outcries from his family and community, Tyler was convicted. According to Free Gary Tyler’s website, “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.”

With Free Gary Tyler campaigns active around the nation and multiple pending appeals, Tyler’s execution date was postponed. Soon after, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Louisiana death penalty was unconstitutional, and Tyler was spared from death—but re-sentenced to life in prison. Requests for parole, pardon, or a commuted sentence were all met with rejection.

Tyler weighed just 107 pounds and stood 4’7” tall at the time of his conviction. He recalled being awoken by screams in the first 72 hours at the prison, looking out the window to see a prisoner engulfed in flames, set alight by another prisoner.

Tyler was surrounded by convicted criminals. “Little did I know that the men who were around me had my interest at heart. When I walked into that prison, they didn’t see me as a threat. How could a small child—young enough to be your son, little brother, nephew, your friend’s son—come to prison with grown men?”

He then described how he was mentored and protected by some of these criminals, saying that they took him under their wing and taught him how to survive. “The same ones protected me and became my guardians, raised someone else’s child, and made sure he didn’t become a victim. They became my big brothers, uncles, mentors, everything.”

Tyler eventually saw a radical change in fellow inmates, recalling people who once hated him based on the color of his skin who grew to love him and, “became my best friends.”

Throughout his time in prison, Tyler pursued education. He was initially denied a request to obtain a GED based on his life sentence and told that, “it would be a waste of taxpayer money.” Tyler ended up reading all of the books he could get, joining clubs and organizations in prison, and taking any classes or rehab programs that were available. He became CPR certified, engaged in bereavement counseling training, studied graphic arts and printing, and attended paralegal school. He volunteered in the prisons’ hospice care facility for seventeen years. Most notably, he became the president of the drama club. Tyler credits drama club with empowering him to use his voice, lead, and inspire. Eventually, Tyler became well known for his ability to rehabilitate and inspire prisoners who had previously lost hope. “They grew to love me just as I grew to love them.”

According to Free Gary Tyler’s website “After enduring over four decades of incarceration, the St. Charles Parish District Attorney’s Office in Louisiana finally agreed to overturn Tyler’s conviction in 2016.

Tyler agreed to enter a guilty plea for manslaughter and received a maximum sentence of 21 years. Since he had already served more than twice that time, his sentence was overturned. Tyler was quietly released from Angola penitentiary on April 29, 2016.”

Tyler said, “we transform every day of our lives…I believe in change.” Tyler is a proponent of rehabilitation for convicts, saying “There are people that commit criminal acts, and there are people that have a propensity to commit criminal acts. You have to make that distinction…you have to ask if that person can be reformed or rehabilitated.”

For more information about Gary Tyler’s life both before and after prison, readers may visit https://www.freegarytyler.com/.

Man wrongly convicted of first-degree murder to speak at Viterbo

Gary Tyler, who was wrongly convicted of first-degree murder at the age of 17 and spent 41 years in Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola, will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 16 in Viterbo University Fine Arts Center Main Theatre.

The event is free and open to the public. It is being held at Viterbo in recognition of Constitution Day. Tyler spoke at Viterbo in 2018 to great acclaim from students and community members. A mask requirement is in effect at Viterbo and all audience members must wear a mask.

Tyler, an African-American, was 16 years old in 1974 when he was charged with the murder of a fellow student, who was white. He was quickly tried and convicted under dubious circumstances in a racially charged environment and was sentenced to death in the electric chair. He was the youngest inmate in history to be incarcerated on death row. Louisiana’s death penalty was ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1976, and Tyler’s sentence was changed to life in prison.

Despite the work of lawyers, activists, and celebrities to free him, Tyler would spend the next 40 years in one of the nation’s bloodiest and violent prisons, where he would witness horrible brutality. Fortunately, he was protected by a group of older inmates who saved him from harm. Tyler was a model prisoner, earning his GED, mentoring other inmates, and volunteering in the prison’s hospice care facility. In 1981, a federal appeals court stipulated that Tyler was “denied a fundamentally fair trial,” but refused to order a new trial.

Tyler finally gained his freedom in 2016 when the Louisiana St. Charles Parish District Attorney’s Office agreed to overturn his murder conviction. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter, and had already served more than twice the maximum sentence for that crime.

Throughout it all, Tyler maintained his innocence.

Today, Tyler lives in Venice, Calif. where he works at Safe Place for Youth helping to get homeless youth off the streets.

He also shares his story through speaking engagements. He is not bitter and concentrates every day on enjoying his freedom.

“I left prison rich in spirit and ready to embrace life,” he said. “I am happy to have the opportunity to live a life that was denied to me for four decades.”

An Art Studio for Gary Tyler

Our neighbor Gary Tyler was an innocent teen put on death row with an assigned execution date in 1976. He spent 41 1/2 years in Angola Prison before he was finally released in 2016. For Gary, free-life meant learning something new every day, things most adults take for granted: a job, a paycheck, a bank account, a cell phone, car and computer. For the past four years, in addition to serving as a guest speaker at many schools and churches, he has been working at the Safe Place for Youth helping to engage, build trust, and provide care and support to youth experiencing homelessness.

While in Angola, Gary learned to design and sew quilts. All of the quilts he created there were sold to raise money for Angola Prison Hospice, and were collected by Oprah Winfrey, George Soros, and the Smithsonian African American Museum of Art among others.

Since his release, Gary has not had the time, equipment or the space to quilt, but he is ready to begin again. Please consider making a contribution to a GoFundMe account set up to help Gary relaunch his life in the arts.

GoFundMe/An art studio for Gary Tyler

To learn more about how Gary came to be our neighbor, visit any of the following webpages.

Gary Tyler (Wikipedia)

Pasadena Weekly: Former death row inmate Gary Tyler starts a new life in Pasadena

Equal Justice Initiative

Free Gary Tyler website

Gary Tyler, former death row inmate, to speak Thursday at Viterbo

LaCrosse Tribune
By Kyke Farrus
September 19, 2018

Gary Tyler served 41 years in prison for a murder he swears, and that all evidence suggests, he didn’t commit.

But the 60-year-old Tyler, who can’t talk for 30 seconds without cracking a smile or erupting into one of his deep, booming laughs, has no semblance of anger in him.

“You should never forgot what happened to you — never — but you should let go of the hate and animosity, because hate can be like poison,” said Tyler, who was released in April 2016 after a long chain of judicial decisions that resulted in a plea deal. He’s scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. Thursday in the San Damiano Chapel at Viterbo University.

“Forgiveness is a powerful thing in life,” he said. “I learned how to forgive people for what they’ve done to me.”

In October 1974, in his native Louisiana, Tyler was arrested after a white student by the name of Timothy Weber was shot and killed during a riot over school integration. Tyler had been on a school bus full of other black students at the time of the shooting.

Though the bus driver claimed the shot was fired from outside the bus, and although several searches of the bus turned up no weapon, Tyler was charged with first-degree murder. Less than a year later, he was convicted by an all-white jury.

“You’re looking at a man who once believed that the system was perfect, that justice would prevail,” Tyler said. “I was young and foolish back then.”

Tyler was sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the youngest inmate on death row.

He avoided the electric chair when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana’s death penalty law was unconstitutional. But for years, Tyler still paid with his life.

Lawyers and judges recognized the evidence against Tyler was dubious and likely manufactured, but technicality after technicality kept him in prison.

Meanwhile, Tyler lost his grandparents. He lost his parents. Life was passing him by.

“Luckily, I had a supporting cast around me and never gave up hope that I’d be free,” said Tyler, who finally was set free when the state of Louisiana offered him a plea deal — 21 years for manslaughter, though he had already served twice that.

“It was surreal,” he said. “I didn’t know whether I woke up or what. I had to pinch myself for a few days until I realized I was hurting myself. I had to stop pinching myself.”

Tyler, in essence, had to learn how to live.

He got a driver’s license, a job and an apartment — all for the first time.

He taught himself how to shop for groceries, a task he initially found overwhelming

And he learned from his young niece, who was 3 at the time, how to use a cell phone.

“Each given day is a sense of liberation,” he said. “What other people take for granted, I cherish.”

Tyler makes his home in Pasadena, California, working for a charitable organization called Safe Place for Youth. By supporting children who are homeless or vulnerable, he hopes to save the next generation from the courtroom, from prison, from the life that he had.

In his story, he sees a lesson.

Tyler had almost no control over his case — the arrest, the conviction, the death sentence.

He could have been incensed with the jurors who found him guilty — and for a while, he was. The biggest piece of evidence against him was a handgun that, it was later found, belonged to the Sheriff’s Department’s firing range.

But, he said, “I had a chance to choose the right path. I could gather something good out of something bad. I survived my ordeal and came out a better person than I came in.”


Lessons from those wrongly convicted

LaCrosse Tribune
By Keith Knutson
September 16, 2018

In 1923, Judge Learned Hand wrote that our criminal justice system was “haunted by the ghost of the innocent man convicted.”

The 1995 book, “Convicted but Innocent,” began to fill in Judge Hand’s ghost with actual data. The authors estimated that 0.5 percent of convicted felons in America were actually innocent. Our criminal justice system was shocked, even offended by the estimate.

Only five years later, the best-seller “Actual Innocence” showed us the impact DNA analysis has on proving wrongful convictions. Today, some researchers suggest the actual rate of wrongful convictions may be as high as 10 percent.

If correct, this means we incarcerate more innocent prisoners in the United States than all prisoners combined in France, Germany and Britain.

The National Registry of Exoneration has almost 2,300 exonerees in its database.

One of those — wrongly convicted of a 1974 murder and imprisoned until 2016 — will speak Thursday at Viterbo University.

The work done by the Innocence Project, founded in 1992, provided a dramatic impact in our addressing the injustice of wrongful conviction. Our nation’s criminal justice system exonerated eight times as many prisoners in 2015, compared with 1989.

However, after exoneration the question becomes how will these unjustly incarcerated people get on with their lives? State governments and municipalities have paid $2.2 billion to exonerated former prisoners, through either lawsuits or state statues. Unfortunately, only half of all exonerees actually receive compensation for their time unjustly incarcerated.

An effort in Wisconsin to increase payments to our wrongfully convicted failed in the Legislature earlier this year. The bill proposed awarding up to $1 million in each case. Among states compensating those wrongly convicted, we remain the lowest in the nation, capping state payments at $25,000. Twenty states still offer no compensation at all.

All of the money used to compensate exonerees comes from public treasuries or municipal insurers. We do not hold public officials financially liable for their responsibility in wrongful convictions. Very seldom do we hold them to account if they undermine our legal system by sending innocents to prison. Perhaps if we did, the incidence of wrongful conviction could be reduced.

Additionally, as is too typical in criminal justice, skin color is a factor in wrongful conviction. Comprising 12 percent of our population, Black Americans constitute 46 percent of our exonerees. They spend more time in prison, and receive lower levels of compensation, than white exonerees receive.

One such person is Gary Tyler. In 1974, at age 16, he sat on a bus with other black students, headed home after attending the recently integrated high school in St Charles Parish, Louisiana. A crowd of several hundred protesters yelled at them, hurling bottles, rocks and racial slurs.

A 13-year-old white schoolmate outside the bus was shot and killed. Sheriff’s deputies searched the bus, claimed they had found a hidden gun (never recovered), and arrested Tyler for murder. Within one week, an all-white jury had sentenced him to death by electric chair.

Statistically, Tyler became the one of every 25 defendants sentenced to death who are later proven to be innocent.

Four witnesses on the bus later recanted their testimony regarding the shooting. A Supreme Court decision vacated his death sentence. Nonetheless, Tyler spent the next four decades in the infamous Angola prison. He finally achieved freedom, and justice delayed, in 2016.

The 18th century British legal scholar, William Blackstone, offered this advice: “It is better that 10 guilty persons escape, than one innocent suffer.” Convicted to death as an innocent teenager, Gary Tyler refuses to be haunted by the ghost of injustice perpetrated against him.

He will speak at Viterbo University’s San Damiano Chapel at 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20.

How a Death Row Inmate Made Injustice Pay Off

(Ming-Wei Fasquelle / YouTube)

By Eric Ortiz
June 28, 2018

Imagine you are charged with a crime you didn’t commit, then wrongfully convicted of first-degree murder. Now, imagine you get sentenced to death by electric chair, sent to one of the most notorious prisons in the United States, and assigned an execution date.

That’s what happened to Gary Tyler. In 1974, Tyler was arrested for disturbing the peace as a 16-year-old sophomore at Destrehan High School in St. Charles Parish, La., after a racial altercation involving 200 white students and a school bus filled with black students (including Tyler). A 13-year-old white student was shot and later died. Tyler was named as the shooting suspect, even though he claimed his innocence and evidence suggested he was framed.

“They kept asking me questions about what happened on the bus,” Tyler told the Pasadena Weekly about being in police custody. “When I said I didn’t know anything, six or seven police officers brutally beat me for two to three hours in the booking room at the substation.”

An all-white jury found Tyler guilty of murder. He entered the Louisiana State Penitentiary, or Angola, at 17, the youngest person on death row.

“Angola was the bloodiest, most infamous prison in the nation,” Tyler said. “It was a place of turmoil where prisoners were killing each other and committing suicide. I saw horrible things in Angola—inmates being set on fire or stabbed with homemade spears. I saw inmates who were doused with acid by other inmates. Some prisoners even got beaten to death by guards.”

A group of inmates protected Tyler.

“They saw a little kid who was all alone,” Tyler explained. “Many of them were uncles and fathers—and they stepped up as responsible men to make sure that nothing happened to me.”

Tyler’s execution date was May 1, 1976. Before that day arrived, his sentence was commuted to life without parole (until after 20 years) after the Supreme Court ruled in Roberts v. Louisiana that the state’s death penalty was unconstitutional.

Tyler made the best of his injustice, getting a GED, studying graphic arts and printing, attending paralegal school, mentoring other inmates and volunteering in the prison’s hospice care facility for 17 years.

During his time in prison, Tyler helped transform the culture of violence at Angola. As the president of the drama club, he directed a passion play, “The Life of Jesus Christ,” featuring other inmates as cast members. This project became the basis of the documentary “Cast the First Stone.”

Tyler recalled the experience during an interview with Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer:

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.

Tyler’s legal case became known worldwide as lawyers and human rights activists fought for his release from prison. In 2016, the St. Charles Parish district attorney’s office in Louisiana agreed to overturn Tyler’s murder conviction if he entered a guilty plea for manslaughter. He did and received the maximum sentence of 21 years. Since he already had served almost 42 years, Tyler was released from Angola on April 29, 2016, at the age of 57.

He now lives in Pasadena, Calif., and has become a community leader.

Tyler has spoken out in support of Proposition 62 to end the death penalty in California. He has spoken at events with actor and activist Mike Farrell, former Los Angeles County District Attorney Gil Garcetti and musician Jackson Browne.

Tyler also has lectured at many places: Cal State Northridge, with the Rev. James Lawson; Cal State Long Beach, with actor Danny Trejo and film producer and Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) founder Scott Budnick; USC (five times), Loyola Marymount; Venice Art Garden; UCLA’s Department of African-American Studies; Loyola Law School, Hastings Law School, All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Los Angeles; Scott United Methodist Church in Pasadena; University Methodist Church in Irvine; actor Tim Robbins’ experimental theater, The Actors’ Gang (two times); and the Catholic Biblical Federation (two times).

He is scheduled to go to Wisconsin in September to speak at Viterbo University and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Still, re-entry after four decades of incarceration has its challenges. Tyler came out of prison with zero dollars and turns 60 on July 10. Although Tyler now works as an outreach and engagement support worker at Safe Place for Youth in Venice, Calif.—helping homeless youth—Social Security requires 40 quarters or 10 years to get the minimum benefits. That means Tyler will be at least 69 years old before he can qualify and collect.

Longtime Los Angeles peace activist Bob Zaugh, who has known and advocated for Tyler since 1989, arranges Tyler’s speaking engagements and has set up a re-entry fund for him.

“Gary had to start from scratch upon leaving Angola prison,” Zaugh wrote in an email. “He had no paid work history, no driver’s license, no savings, had never had an apartment. Even going to Ralphs to shop was an eye-opening experience. He was starting from ground zero, but Gary immediately became a community force.”

Tyler continues to be a positive force. At the beginning of 2018, he spoke at Caltech in Pasadena. The woman who organized the event, Marionne Epalle, an administrator in the engineering and applied science department, is his neighbor. After the talk, they went to the Caltech private dining room for lunch. Mwi Epalle, Marionne’s 15-year-old daughter, joined them, and said she wanted to do a class project with Tyler at the International School of Los Angeles. The project was a video, “My Neighbor, Gary.” When the video was completed, she submitted it to a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights video contest in partnership with the American Federation of Teachers and Tribeca Film Institute. The competition had more than 800 entries. Her entry won first place.

Tyler has chosen the power of compassion over the power of destruction. Despite spending two-thirds of his life behind bars in a terrible miscarriage of justice, Tyler holds no anger or resentment. In fact, he carries on RFK’s message of hope:

Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Like the America of Robert F. Kennedy’s day before his death in 1968, America today faces some difficult tests. As we question what nation we are and what direction we want to go, we can look to Tyler for some guidance and inspiration in the struggle for justice.

“The life I lived, the life that others lived, what they went through, it exemplifies how an individual can overcome these adversities and these challenges and how they can make a difference in their community.”

If you want to provide financial support as Gary Tyler develops his life and work as an important community leader, give to his Liberty Hill re-entry fundor his GoFundMe birthday page.

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


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.


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

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.