Once on death row, ex-inmate helps teens
High school conjures memories of gridiron football, senior prom and the start of lifelong friendships for many. Not so for 63-year-old Louisianan Gary Tyler.
In a blink of an eye in 1974, an attack by whites in the middle-class town Destrehan in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, against bused-in black students from neighboring St. Rose turned Tyler’s young life into a helter-skelter, leaving the public school sophomore the country’s youngest-ever death row inmate.
The ensuing horror cost him 42 years of his life in the notorious Louisiana State Prison at Angola, sentenced to die for a murder he maintains he never committed. His life was spared only by a Supreme Court decision in 1976 ruling the death sentence unconstitutional.
Mercifully released in 2016, Tyler relocated to Los Angeles, where he counsels youth as a lead outreach and engagement support worker, using knowledge and wisdom that today serves also as the foundation of his guest speaking appearances.
Throughout it all, he has espoused little trace of bitterness, instead exhibiting grace and humanity while speaking on college campuses and other stages.
“I was 17 when they tried me, but I was 16 when all of this happened,’’ Tyler recounted last week in a phone interview. “That was part of their interrogation. It was like they water- boarded people in Guantanamo Bay and they got people confessing to kill Jesus Christ. But the thing is, they didn’t get any confession out of me. I didn’t have anything to confess to. I guess that’s one of the things that perplexed them. They couldn’t get me to sign any statements against anybody. They couldn’t get me to sign any statements against myself.’’
The St. Charles Parish ordeal, having its origins in the same court-enforced busing taking place in Boston at the time, occurred at the end of the day on Oct. 7, 1974. Tyler was one of a group of black students on a bus that was spontaneously attacked by an enraged anti-busing mob.
In the frenzy, a 13-year-old white student named Timothy Weber was shot dead. Another white student was injured. The murder case against Tyler rested on the statements of four witnesses, who subsequently recanted their testimonies. Even the bus driver said that no shots were fired from inside the bus.
“Believe me, it took me decades to really put a finger on the pulse of what was really going on at that time,’’ Tyler said. “Because when it happened, I really didn’t understand the racial implications of everything that was taking place. I just knew that we were bused into a neighborhood that we were not welcome. Tensions were high. I couldn’t tell you what was behind it, whether racism or other things.’’
A first search of the bus produced no weapon. All the Black students were then searched outside the bus — and again, no weapon. No one in the crowd of assailants was searched. Tyler wasn’t even a suspect at first. Police later suspiciously produced a weapon that was said to be taken earlier from a firing range and had been used by officers for practice.
The case, conducted by a regional and incestuous law enforcement police and court system, took just over a year to be tried. It ended with a conviction and death sentence for a teenager not yet old enough to legally drink liquor or vote.
In those days before CNN, internet and social media, it took deeply penetrating songs by the late Gil Scott-Heron (“Angola Louisiana”) and British reggae band UB40 (“Tyler,” sung by Alistair Campbell), to help spread the word of one of the great miscarriages of justice in the modern history of the United States.
Amnesty International and the news outlet Democracy Now, in addition to a three-part series by the New York Times’ columnist Bob Herbert and various other media and rallies in cities across the country, helped to keep alive the flame of hope. Tyler’s mother, father, 10 siblings, and extended family and friends also never gave up on the goal of a new trial and seeing the conviction overturned.
Merely staying unhurt in the dangerous maximum-security prison was a major concern. But Tyler said older inmates became his protectors. In prison, he joined the drama club and participated in performances over the years, highlighting myriad social issues. Joining the Jaycees he said, helped him to shed inhibitions and become a highly-proficient speaker. He also learned knitting.
“I had no other choice than to pursue an education inside prison,’’ he said. “Because it helped me to better understand and deal with my ordeal. It helped me to better express myself and to give an effective argument against the things that weren’t true surrounding my case. You learn all of that when you are fighting for your life and fighting for what’s right.’’
Back in 1974, Tyler’s long ordeal most likely emanated from a remark he made during the search, when police asked his cousin about a chain he wore around his neck. Tyler interjected, telling the cop that “it had nothing to do with anything.’’ The old Southern taboo of a young Black male speaking out perhaps doomed him. He was apprehended, taken to the police substation, beaten mercilessly and, as it appears, subsequently framed.
“I guess due to ignorance and stubbornness, I believed in the American Dream and the American justice system,’’ he said. “As young as I was, I believed the truth would prevail. They are framing you for something that you didn’t do, they almost murdered [me] by practically beating me to death in the substation. I still believed that the system was fair. And I believed that I was going home. I was wrong.’’
At Viterbo University, a Franciscan Order institution in La Crosse, Wisconsin, Keith A. Knutson, a professor of political science in the department of ethics, culture and society, and his colleague David Gardner, have brought Tyler to their campus on two occasions. A third visit is in the planning stage. Tyler, each time, has left an indelible impression.
“He has a gift and a real human connection,” Knutson said. “And, of course, he must have had that in prison. Prisoners are human. I think that’s one of the takeaways in getting to know Gary and listening to him — his humanity. He could explain some of his own prison experiences and, of course, of unjustly being sentenced to death.’’
Tyler came to Viterbo the first time in September and spent a week there, Knutson said.
“In addition to an address before about 700 people, he visited classrooms, a couple of churches, a criminal justice council, the local DA, several judges and two dozen other people on the committee,” Knutson said. “They sent me messages and said that his was the best conversation they’d ever had.”
Over the years, Tyler’s case reached and was approved several times by the local pardon board, but often died by the inaction of three separate Louisiana governors. Once for not yet having the GED he was working toward. In another instance, his pardon was denied four days before a governor left office. “I guess, as they say, I was a political liability for them,’’ Tyler said.
During his imprisonment, his dad Uylos, mom Juanita and some of his siblings passed away. Juanita, who died in 2012. throughout it all remained a major point of reference in his life and never let her son give up.
“I’d never say that I lost hope,’’ he said. “But I became disillusioned. I felt that the way things were going, would I ever get out? But I knew that if I just gave up would mean that I was surrendering, capitulating to a system that went out of its way to falsely convict me. So I felt in a stubborn way I couldn’t give them that satisfaction. Besides, I had a mother, and she would not take that. ‘You giving up? No!’”
His case had long been a stain on Louisiana. It took a younger, new breed of district attorney, Joel T. Chaisson, who had grown up knowing about the case, to help facilitate a way out for Tyler.
“My case at that point was a drag on the parish itself,’’ Tyler said. “You had people who felt like they want to move forward, not be stuck dealing with a relic of the past. They wanted people to believe they are progressive and changing with the time. What they did was drop my conviction all the way down to manslaughter. After all the years I served, [Chaisson] felt that it would be cumbersome to go before a parole board or put me on probation, and with the reviews he got from prison officials, that ‘this guy here is a model prisoner, he was one of the best and hasn’t given us any trouble,’ he felt he didn’t want to complicate my life like that.’’