The history of the American legal system is scarred with instances of injustice: the Haymarket martyrs, Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Add to this list the case of Gary Tyler, convicted of murder at the age of 16. Tyler’s case was remarkable because at the time of his 1975 conviction, he was the nation’s youngest death-row inmate. The spotlight dimmed when his sentence was commuted to life without the possibility of parole in 1977, a year after the US Supreme Court declared Louisiana’s death penalty unconstitutional.
Tyler, now 48, is living out his days in Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison. A former slave plantation, Angola is home to 5,000 prisoners, 75 percent of whom are black. He has now spent years of his life behind bars because he was the wrong color in the wrong place at the wrong time.
National interest in Tyler’s case was revived by a recent series of articles by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert. In 1974 Tyler was on a school bus filled with African-American students who attended the formerly all-white Destrehan High School in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana. A white mob attacked the school bus. As Gary’s brother Terry recalled years later to journalist Adam Nossiter in a piece published in The Nation, “They were on the attack, man. It was panic.”
Witnesses at the time said someone on the bus pointed out the window and yelled, “Look at that white boy with that gun.” After several pops, a 13-year-old white student, Timothy Weber, lay wounded on the ground. Weber’s cousin, Deputy Sheriff V.J. St. Pierre, rushed the boy to the hospital, where he later died from a gunshot wound. Later, white supremacist David Duke came to Destrehan to fan the flames of racial hatred.
Herbert wrote, “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.” The police came onto the bus and Tyler was dragged off. Then came the beatings. As Juanita Tyler, Gary’s mother, told Herbert, “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.” An all-white jury found Tyler guilty of first-degree murder. Since his conviction, the four witnesses against him have recanted their testimony.
The murder weapon, as Herbert reported, had been “stolen from a firing range used by the sheriff’s deputies.” It appeared out of nowhere as the murder weapon. The gun has since magically disappeared from the evidence room.
A federal appeals court ultimately ruled that Tyler did not receive a fair trial, but justice was again denied. In an interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez of Democracy Now!, Herbert explained that the court ruled that “the charge to the jury was flawed, and they said that it was flawed so badly that it clearly could have had an impact on how the jurors ruled. But they were so insistent on not having this case overturned and not having Gary Tyler freed or have a new trial that they ruled on a technicality that he did not deserve a new trial. So it’s on the record that a federal appeals court has said that his trial was fundamentally unfair.”