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.

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