Browsed by
Category: Post-Release News

Four decades later, Gary Tyler is free

Four decades later, Gary Tyler is free

The Lousiana Weekly
May 9, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Tyler’s Long Road to Justice

Gary Tyler’s Long Road to Justice

The Progressive
By Lawrence Richard
May 11, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence Reichard is a freelance writer in Belfast, Maine.

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

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

counterpunch
By Lawrence Reichard
May 12, 2016

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

– Neil Young

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lawrence Reichard lives in Belfast, Maine, and can be reached at lreichard@gmail.com.

Gary Tyler Walks Free from Angola After 41 Years Imprisoned

Gary Tyler Walks Free from Angola After 41 Years Imprisoned

Democracy Now!
May 2, 2016

In Louisiana, Gary Tyler has walked free from the Angola prison after serving 41 years for a murder many believe he did not commit. Tyler, an African American, has been jailed since he was 16 years old after an all-white jury convicted him based entirely on the statements of four witnesses who later recanted their testimony. His case has been called one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in the modern history of the United States.

Gary Tyler finally released!

Gary Tyler finally released!

St Charles Herald Guide
By Anna Thibodeauz
April 29, 2016

After serving 41 years in prison for the 1974 shooting death of Timothy Weber, Gary Tyler of St. Rose pleaded guilty to manslaughter as part of a plea agreement in the decades old case and walked out of court today (April 29) a free man.

Until today’s hearing before Judge Lauren Lemmon, Tyler had maintained his innocence but told Lemmon he wanted to accept responsibility for his role in the shooting of the 13-year-old Norco resident.

“I have been incarcerated since I was 16 years old. I am now 57 years old,” Tyler said in a statement to Lemmon. “While in prison, I tried my best to live a purposeful life and to become a responsible and caring adult. I am committed to living a meaningful and purposeful life outside of prison. I hope that I will be able to help others to find the way to peaceful resolution of conflict and to show compassion for each other, for the benefit of our community, our families and the world in which we live.”

St. Charles Parish District Attorney Joel Chaisson II said Weber’s parents did not want to attend the hearing, but concurred with his plea deal.

Chaisson said the plea agreement was based on the following factors: Tyler’s willingness for the first time in more than 41 years to admit responsibility for Weber’s death; federal court finding the jury’s original guilty determination was “fundamentally unfair;” the Louisiana Parole Board voting three times to reform Tyler’s sentence from a life sentence to a term of years so he could be released from prison; Tyler’s positive accomplishments while incarcerated and Weber’s parents’ acceptance and understanding in the case that this was a reasonable resolution in the case.

At a time when the parish was embroiled in racial tension, Weber was shot on Oct. 7, 1974 on the grounds of Destrehan High School. Tyler, who was arrested and charged as an adult, was convicted of the homicide in 1975, and was sentenced to death. He spent two years on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

Tyler’s death sentence was later overturned and a life sentence imposed.

In June 2013, Tyler filed a motion based on the 2012 Miller vs. Alabama decision that held mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders violated the U.S. Constitution. The 2016 Montgomery vs. Louisiana decision held that its holding Miller must be applied retroactively that required all juveniles with this life sentence to either be re-sentenced or considered for parole.

The plea agreement resolved the issues that were raised by the holdings in these two cases without requiring appellate reviews and/or pardon board hearings, which according to Chaisson, the Weber family sought to avoid.

Lemmon asked Tyler, “How do you plea?”

“Guilty,” he replied.

Lemmon accepted his plea and sentenced him to the maximum 21-year sentence for manslaughter.

“You should be released today with credit for time served,” she said. “There are no winners in this case – none,” Lemmon said. “I hope this brings some closure. The best of luck to you.”

Having served 41 years (two of them on death row), Tyler left court on Friday a free man.

Tyler expressed to the Weber family that he was “truly sorry for their loss and pain. I accept responsibility for my role in this.” He also asked for prayers for the Weber family, “and for healing in the days and weeks to come.

Chaisson praised Weber’s parents “for their determination to seek justice for their son, for their endurance in the face of years of protracted legal battles in this case, and for their acceptance and understanding that a resolution wherein this matter is finally resolved with a guilty plea is in society’s best interest.”

After more than 4 decades in prison, Gary Tyler finally free

After more than 4 decades in prison, Gary Tyler finally free

KATC ABC TV
By CHEVEL JOHNSON
Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) – After almost 42 years at Louisiana’s maximum security prison, Gary Tyler is a free man.

Tyler had been jailed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola since he was 16, convicted of first-degree murder for the 1974 slaying of a fellow Destrehan High School student amid rising racial tensions surrounding school integration. Now 57, he was released Friday.

Norris Henderson, a counselor helping ease Tyler’s re-entry into society, says Tyler’s first reaction after walking out of Angola was relief.

Tyler’s life sentence was recently declared unconstitutional. The St. Charles Parish district attorney’s office agreed to vacate Tyler’s conviction and Tyler agreed to enter a guilty plea to manslaughter and receive the maximum sentence of 21 years. Since he had served more than twice that, he was released about 4:45 p.m.