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