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.