A Death in Destrehan

By Bob Herbert, Op-Ed Columnist / New York Times
Destrehan, Louisiana, February 1, 2007 

On the afternoon of Oct. 7, 1974, a mob of 200 enraged whites, many of them students, closed in on a bus filled with black students that was trying to pull away from the local high school. The people in the mob were in a high-pitched frenzy. They screamed racial epithets and bombarded the bus with rocks and bottles. The students on the bus were terrified.

When a shot was heard, the kids on the bus dived for cover. But it was a 13-year-old white boy standing near the bus, not far from his mother, who toppled to the ground with a bullet wound in his head. The boy, a freshman named Timothy Weber, died a few hours later.

That single shot in this rural town about 25 miles up the Mississippi River from New Orleans set in motion a tale of appalling injustice that has lasted to the present day.

Destrehan was in turmoil in 1974 over school integration. The Supreme Court’s historic desegregation ruling was already 20 years old — time enough, the courts said, for Destrehan and the surrounding area to comply. But the Ku Klux Klan was still welcome in Destrehan in those days, and David Duke, its one-time imperial wizard, was an admired figure. White families in the region wanted no part of integration.

When black students were admitted to Destrehan High, they were greeted with taunts, various forms of humiliation and violence. Some of the black students fought back, and in the period leading up to the shooting there had been racial fights at a football game and inside the school.

While the Weber boy was being taken to a hospital, authorities ordered the black students off the bus and searched each one. The bus was also thoroughly searched. No weapon was found, and there was no evidence to indicate that the shot had come from the bus. The bus driver insisted it had not come from the bus, but from someone firing at the bus.

One of the black youngsters, a 16-year-old named Gary Tyler, was arrested for disturbing the peace after he talked back to a sheriff’s deputy — one of the few deputies in St. Charles Parish who was black. It may have been young Tyler’s impudence that doomed him. He was branded on the spot as the designated killer.

(Later, at a trial, the deputy, Nelson Coleman, was asked whose peace had been disturbed by Mr. Tyler’s comments. “Mine,” he replied.)

Matters moved amazingly fast after the shooting. Racial tension gave way to racial hysteria. A white boy had been killed and some black had to pay. Mr. Tyler, as good a black as any, was taken to a sheriff’s substation where he was beaten unmercifully amid shouted commands that he confess. He would not.

It didn’t matter. In just a little over a year he would be tried, convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death by electrocution.

The efficiency of the process was chilling. Evidence began to miraculously appear. Investigators “found” a .45-caliber pistol. Never mind that there were no fingerprints on it and it turned out to have been stolen from a firing range used by the sheriff’s deputies. (Or that it subsequently disappeared as conveniently as it was found.) The authorities said they found the gun on the bus, despite the fact that the initial search had turned up nothing.

The authorities found witnesses who said that Mr. Tyler had been the gunman. Never mind that the main witness, a former girlfriend of Mr. Tyler’s, was a troubled youngster who had been under the care of a psychiatrist and had a history of reporting phony crimes to the police, including a false report of a kidnapping. She and every other witness who fingered Mr. Tyler would later recant, charging that they had been terrorized into testifying falsely by the police.

A sworn affidavit from Larry Dabney, who was seated by Mr. Tyler on the bus, was typical. He said his treatment by the police was the “scariest thing” he’d ever experienced. “They didn’t even ask me what I saw,” he said. “They told me flat out that I was going to be their key witness. … 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. That was not true. I didn’t see Gary or anybody else in that bus with a gun.”

Mr. Tyler was spared electrocution when the Supreme Court declared Louisiana’s death penalty unconstitutional. But in many ways he has in fact paid with his life. He’ll turn 50 this year in the state penitentiary at Angola, where he is serving out his sentence of life without parole for the murder of Timothy Weber.

“They Beat Gary So Bad”

By Bob Herbert, Op-Ed Columnist / New York Times 
St. Rose, Louisiana, February 8, 2007 

Juanita Tyler lives in a neat one-story house that sits behind a glistening magnolia tree that dominates the small front lawn.

She is 74 now and unfailingly gracious, but she admits to being tired from a lifetime of hard work and trouble. I went to see her to talk about her son, Gary.

The Tylers are black. In 1974, when Gary was 16, he was accused of murdering a 13-year-old white boy outside the high school that they attended in nearby Destrehan. The boy was shot to death in the midst of turmoil over school integration, which the local whites were resisting violently.

The case against young Tyler – who was on a bus with other black students that was attacked by about 200 whites – was built on bogus evidence and coerced testimony. But that was enough to get him convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to die in the electric chair. His life was spared when the Louisiana death penalty was ruled unconstitutional, but he is serving out a life sentence with no chance of parole in the state penitentiary at Angola.

Ms. Tyler’s sharpest memory of the day Gary was arrested was of sitting in a room at a sheriff’s station, listening to deputies in the next room savagely beating her son.

“They beat Gary so bad,” she said. “My poor child. I couldn’t do nothing. They wouldn’t let me in there. I saw who went in there. They were like older men. They didn’t care that I was there. They didn’t care who was there. They beat Gary something awful, and I could hear him hollering and moaning. All I could say was, “Oh Jesus, have mercy.”

“One of the deputies had a strap and they whipped him with that. It was terrible. Finally, when they let me go in there, Gary was just trembling. He was frightened to death. He was trembling and rocking back and forth. They had kicked him all in his privates. He said, “Mama, they kicked me. One kicked me in the front and one kicked in the back.” He said that over and over.

“I couldn’t believe what they had done to my baby.”

The deputies had tried to get Gary to confess, but he wouldn’t. Ms. Tyler (like so many people who have looked closely at this case) was scornful of the evidence the authorities came up with.

“It was ridiculous,” she said. “Where was he gonna get that big ol’ police gun they said he used? It was a great big ol’ gun. And he had on those tight-fitting clothes and nobody saw it?”

The gun that investigators produced as the murder weapon was indeed a large, heavy weapon – a government-issued Colt .45 that had been stolen from a firing range used by the sheriff’s department. Deputies who saw Gary before the shooting and those who searched him (and the rest of the black students on the bus) immediately afterward did not see any gun.

“I don’t know where the police got that gun from,” said Ms. Tyler. “But they didn’t get it from my son, that’s for sure.”

Ms. Tyler worked for many years as a domestic while raising 11 children. Her husband, Uylos, a maintenance worker who often held three jobs at a time, died in 1989. “He had a bad heart,” Ms. Tyler said.

She shifted in her chair in the living room of the small house, and was quiet for several minutes. Then she asked, “Do you know what it’s like to lose a child?”

I shook my head.

“I always felt sorry for that woman whose son was killed,” she said. “That was a terrible time. I remember it clear, like it was yesterday. But what happened was wrong. The white people, they didn’t want no black children in that school. So there was a lot of tension. And my son has paid a terrible price for that.

“They didn’t have no kind of proof against him, but they beat him bad anyway, and then they sentenced him to the electric chair.”

Ms. Tyler visits Gary at Angola regularly, the last time a few weeks ago. “He’s doing well,” she said. “And I’m glad that he’s able to cope. He tries to help the young ones out when they come in there. He always tells me, “My dear, you have to stay strong so I can stay strong.” So then I just try to hold my head up and keep on going.”

She looked for a moment as if she was going to cry, but she didn’t.

“It’s just sad,” she said. “I wonder if he’ll ever be able to come out. I wonder will I live long enough to see him out.”

Gary Tyler’s Lost Decades

By Bob Herbert, Op-Ed Columnist / New York Times
Destrehan, Louisiana, February 5, 2007 

The term time warp could have been coined for this rural town of 11,000 residents that sits beside, and just a little below, the Mississippi River. A remnant of the sugar-plantation era, the region’s racially troubled past is always here, seldom spoken about but inescapable, like the murk in the air of a perpetually stalled weather front.

The Harry Hurst Middle School is on the site of the old Destrehan High School, which was the scene of violent protests during the integration period of the 1970s. Local residents have tried to blot out the murder case that made Destrehan High notorious three decades ago, but there’s a big problem with that collective effort to forget. The black teenager who was railroaded into prison (and almost into the electric chair) for the murder of a white student in 1974 is still in prison all these many years later. He’s middle-aged now, still suffering through a life sentence without any chance for parole in the notorious state penitentiary at Angola.

There is no longer any doubt that the case against the teenager, Gary Tyler, was a travesty. A federal appeals court ruled unequivocally that he did not receive a fair trial. The Louisiana Board of Pardons issued rulings on three occasions that would have allowed Mr. Tyler to be freed.

But this is the South and Mr. Tyler was a black person convicted of killing a white. It didn’t matter that the case was built on bogus evidence and coerced witnesses, or that the trial was, in the words of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, “fundamentally unfair.” Mr. Tyler was never given a new trial and the pardon board recommendations were rejected by two governors.

(Lurking in the background as the case unfolded was David Duke, a former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan who was very active politically in Louisiana and always ready to inject his poison into the public issues of the day. If you drive around Destrehan and nearby communities today you will still see some of the old blue-and-white campaign signs for Duke.)

Mr. Tyler, a sophomore at Destrehan High, was on a bus filled with black students that was attacked on Oct. 7, 1974, by a white mob enraged over school integration. A shot was fired and a 13-year-old white boy standing outside the bus collapsed, mortally wounded. Mr. Tyler was arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace after he talked back to a sheriff’s deputy.

Although the bus and its passengers were searched and no weapon was found, Mr. Tyler was taken into custody, savagely beaten and accused of committing the murder. A gun was found during a subsequent search of the bus and witnesses were rounded up to testify against Mr. Tyler. It turned out that the gun (which has since disappeared) had been stolen from a firing range used by officers of the sheriff’s department. All of the witnesses who fingered Mr. Tyler would eventually recant, saying they had been terrorized into testifying falsely by the authorities.

Mr. Tyler was represented at trial by a white sole practitioner who had never handled a murder case, much less a death penalty case. He kept his meetings with his client to a minimum and would later complain about the money he was paid.

The outcome was predictable. Mr. Tyler was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair by an all-white jury. At 17, he was the youngest prisoner on death row in the country. He almost certainly would have been executed if the U.S. Supreme Court had not ruled the Louisiana death penalty unconstitutional.

The Fifth Circuit ruling in 1981 said that an improper charge to the jury had denied Mr. Tyler the presumption of innocence at his trial. It is folly, the court said, to argue that the erroneous charge did not affect the central determination of guilt or innocence.

What was folly was any expectation that Mr. Tyler would be treated fairly at any point. Despite the appeals court ruling, he was denied a new trial on a technicality.

Now consider this, because it will tell you all you need to know about racial justice in the South. A 19-year-old black man named Richard Dunn was shotgunned to death as he was heading home from a benefit dance in support of Mr. Tyler at Southern University in New Orleans in 1976. A white man, Anthony Mart, was arrested and convicted of shooting Mr. Dunn from a passing car.

Gary Tyler’s current attorney, Mary Howell, ruefully explained what happened to Mr. Mart for the cold-blooded killing of a black stranger: He was sent to prison for life but was pardoned and freed after serving about 10 years.