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.

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