(born July 1958) has been a prisoner since 1975 and was the true-life
subject of an important early song by British reggae band UB40.
Tyler was a child on a schoolbus of black children,
which was attacked by an angry white mob furious at school integration.
Aged 16, Tyler was arrested for the 1974 murder of 13
year-old Timothy Weber, who was shot during this incident. He was
subsequently convicted by a Louisiana court and sentenced to capital
punishment, death by electrocution.
Since then, Louisiana's death penalty was ruled to be
unconstitutional. Tyler was resentenced to life in prison. He is
currently serving his sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in
Human-rights organisations have consistently argued
that the legal process was flawed with racism and Amnesty International
have described him as a "political prisoner" (ibid).
Tyler's supporters make many claims in his defence,
that are deemed to indicate a miscarriage of justice. Some of the
indisputable facts of the case include:
The Louisiana jury was all-white
The 1981 appeal court decided that Tyler was "denied
a fundamentally fair trial," but declined to order a retrial
All witnesses against Tyler have since recanted
their testimony and now say they and their families were threatened
by the police. Some of them claim they were told what to say by the
Governor Kathleen Blanco refuses to pardon Gary
A gun was found during the subsequent search of
the bus but it turned out that that gun (which has disappeared since
then) was stolen from the firing range used by the officers of the
The bus driver continually insists that he
believes the shot was fired from out of the bus.
The bus driver observed the search of the bus,
and insists that the gun was not found on it.
Tyler and UB40
UB40 included the song "Tyler" on their 1980 debut
album, Signing Off. While the song namechecks the subject only as "Tyler",
the version recorded on the live album UB40 Live (1983) is introduced by
Ali Campbell including Tyler's first name.
Ali Campbell remarked in an interview in August 2007
that the next UB40 album will be named Gary Tyler.
Appeal to the governor of Louisiana
You may get an answer the process is slow
Federal government too much to help him
It's been nearly five years
And they won't let him go
Tyler is guilty the white judge has said so
What right do we have to say it's not so
Tyler is guilty the white judge has said so
What right do we have to say it's not so
Testify under pressure, a racist jury
Government lawyers its all for show
With rows of white faces
He's framed up for murder
They won't let him go
Police gun was planted, no matching bullets
No prints on the handle, no proof to show
But Tyler is guilty the white judge has said so
They show him no mercy
They won't let him go
(Repeat 1st verse)
NOTE: the line "It's been nearly five years" is a
little out of date now.
Gary Tyler, framed up in 1974
desegregation fight, still in jail
By Sam Manuel - TheMilitant.com
WASHINGTON—One of the ongoing travesties of justice
by the U.S. government against working people, especially those who are
Black, is the now 32-year imprisonment of Gary Tyler. At age 16, Tyler,
who is Black, was framed-up, arrested, tried, and convicted by an all-white
jury in Destrehan, Louisiana, for the death of a 13-year-old white
student, Timothy Weber.
Weber was fatally shot while standing near a mob that
attacked Black students being bussed into Destrehan High School as part
of a desegregation program.
Tyler became the youngest U.S. inmate on death row.
In 1975 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Louisiana’s death penalty
unconstitutional. The following year Tyler’s sentence to die by the
electric chair was commuted to life imprisonment without the option of
parole. He will turn 50 this year in the state penitentiary in Angola,
Amnesty International renewed its call to Louisiana’s
governor to pardon Tyler February 12.
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote a
series of articles on the case at the beginning of February. He noted
that despite the complete lack of credible evidence that Tyler fired the
fatal shot, a ruling by a federal appeals court that the trial judge’s
instructions to the jury were “unconstitutional,” and two
recommendations by the Louisiana Board of Pardons that could have lead
to Tyler’s release, he remains behind bars.
The Ku Klux Klan and other racist outfits played a
leading role in opposing school desegregation in Louisiana. On Oct. 7,
1974, students at Destrehan High were sent home early as a result of
clashes between Black and white students. A mob of 200 whites throwing
stones and bottles attacked the bus carrying Black students as it
attempted to leave. A shot rang out. Weber fell to the ground and died a
few hours later.
Around seven cops searched the bus on two occasions
for more than three hours. No gun was found in the bus or on the Black
students, who were also searched either on the spot or at the police
station. The bus driver insisted that the shot came from someone firing
at the bus.
Tyler was arrested by deputy Nelson Coleman, one of
the few Black sheriff’s deputies in St. Charles Parish, for “disturbing
the peace” after he complained about police harassment of a fellow Black
student. When asked at the trial whose peace Tyler had disturbed,
Coleman replied, “Mine.”
Cops severely beat Tyler at the police station in an
effort to force him to confess to the shooting. He refused.
During the trial, the prosecution’s primary evidence
was the testimony of Nathalie Blanks, who said she saw Tyler fire the
gun. She claimed he hid the weapon by slitting open a bus seat and
placing it inside. Blanks was under the care of a psychiatrist at the
time and had a history of falsely reporting crimes. She later recanted
her testimony, as did several other students who said cops had coerced
them into giving statements identifying Tyler as the shooter.
During the initial search of the bus cops had shaken
and turned upside down the seat described by Blanks. No gun was found.
After Blanks’s testimony, the cops said they found a .45 automatic in
The gun had been stolen from a police firing range
used by the very cops who arrested Tyler and were investigating the
case. No fingerprints were found on the gun, and it was not tested to
see if it had been recently fired. Nor was it tested to determine if the
bullet that killed Weber could have been fired from the gun. The gun has
since mysteriously disappeared.
Tyler was represented by a white lawyer with no
experience in criminal cases, let alone a death penalty trial. The
public defender spent a total of one hour with his client during the
year prior to the trial, did not interview witnesses, and did not have
any tests conducted on the prosecution’s physical evidence. His failure
to challenge the trial judge’s unconstitutional instructions to the jury
contributed to Tyler’s loss on appeal.
In 1980 the U.S. Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit,
vacated Tyler’s conviction and ordered a retrial on the grounds that the
judge’s instructions to the jury to find that Tyler had “intended the
natural and probable consequences of his act” made the trial
“fundamentally unfair.” The state appealed the ruling, and, in 1981, the
same court reversed its own order for a new trial. It maintained,
however, that the judge’s instructions to the jury were unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court declined to hear the case on appeal.
In 1989 Tyler petitioned the Louisiana Board of
Pardons. The board vote 3-2 to recommend to then governor. Charles
Roemer, a Democrat, that Tyler’s sentence be reduced to 60 years. That
would have made him eligible for parole after serving a third of the
sentence, 20 years. Roemer rejected the recommendation.
In 1991 Tyler appealed to the board for clemency. The
board voted unanimously to recommend that Roemer reduce Tyler’s sentence
to 50 years and restore a benefit for good behavior, thus making Tyler
immediately eligible for parole. Roemer denied the request shortly
before leaving office.
The Case of
Gary Tyler, Louisiana
Amnesty International Report circa 1995 -
Gary Tyler, black, now aged 36, is serving a life
prison sentence in Louisiana State Penitentiary. He was convicted in
November 1975 for the murder of 13-year-old Timothy Weber, a white
schoolboy who was shot during racial fighting in 1974. Tyler, who was 16
at the time of the incident, has consistently denied involvement in the
crime. Since his trial, serious doubts have been raised about the
evidence on which he was convicted. Nineteen years after his conviction
he is again seeking a pardon.
Amnesty International is deeply concerned at evidence
which suggests that a serious miscarriage of justice occurred either as
a result of or exacerbated by his race and the racially charged
atmosphere at the time of the events, the seriously deficient legal
representation which Gary Tyler received at his trial before an all-white
jury, and new evidence that has come to light over the years which
suggests that Gary Tyler did not shoot the victim.
The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1954 that
schools should no longer be racially segregated: in order to integrate
schools black students were taken by bus from their living areas to
schools in white populated areas. However, the authorities of Destrehan
High School strongly resisted this policy and only in the 1960s - and as
a result of a Court Order - the school finally started the process of
integration. In 1974, the tensions created by the resistance of whites
to desegregation resulted in frequent clashes in which the Klu Klux Klan,
the white supremacist organization, played a leading role.
On 7 October 1974 students at Destrehan High School,
St Charles Parish, Louisiana, were sent home earlier than usual due to
racial disturbances during the day. As the buses carrying black students
back to their homes were leaving the school they were attacked by a
group of 100 to 200 white people throwing stones and bottles at the
Timothy Weber was standing near the buses with his
mother who had come to collect him. A shot was heard and he fell wounded;
he died a few hours later in hospital. A man standing next to him was
slightly scratched in the arm, allegedly by the same bullet.
Gary Tyler was one of the black students on the bus
from which the shot was allegedly fired. This was not his regular bus
but he had got into it as the situation had become increasingly
dangerous. There were some 65 students on the bus, well over its normal
The police, who had been called by the school
principal, ordered the bus to park around the corner. All students were
ordered to get off the bus and male students were thoroughly searched
immediately; girl students were searched later at the police station.
The bus was searched on two different occasions for over three hours by
approximately seven policemen and no gun was found. The bus was then
taken to the police station along with the students. Gary Tyler was
taken in a police car as he had been charged with disturbing the peace
(he had complained about the police harassment of a fellow black
At the police station the students were questioned
and released. One of them, Nathalie Blanks, stated that she had been
seating next to Tyler and had seen him fire a gun into the crowd; she
indicated to the police the exact place where she had been seating. It
was after Blanks' testimony that the police "found" a .45 automatic gun
stuffed inside the seat, through a long, clearly visible tear in the
seat. The seat had been previously searched, shaken and turned upside
down several times and nothing had been found.
Gary Tyler was detained in the police station and
reportedly badly beaten. However, he did not make any statement
implicating himself in any way.
Charges and Trial
Gary Tyler was charged with first degree murder, a
capital crime. The first degree murder charge meant that his case had to
be tried in the adult criminal court rather than the juvenile court. A
lesser charge, including second-degree murder, would have been tried in
juvenile court given Tyler's young age. The most severe punishment
imposed would have been juvenile supervision until the age of 21 at a
juvenile detention facility.
Gary Tyler was tried by an all-white jury with
members of the black community deliberately excluded from the jury. The
prosecution relied mainly on the testimony of one girl student, Nathalie
Blanks, who was in the same bus with Tyler. She testified to having seen
Gary Tyler fire the gun but after the trial she recanted her testimony.
Other students who also testified against Tyler have later recanted,
saying that they were coerced by the police to making the statements.
Gary Tyler was represented by a white lawyer who
specialized in civil cases. He spent a total of about one hour with Gary
Tyler during the whole year previous to the trial. Furthermore, he did
not interview witnesses, present any expert witnesses or conduct tests
on physical evidence offered by the state; he failed to object to gross
errors committed at trial. His failure to object to the judge's
instructions to the jury meant that later appeals have been lost on this
The forensic evidence presented by the prosecution
was of questionable quality and did not clearly and definitely implicate
Gary Tyler in the murder.
For example, the
alleged murder weapon, a .45 automatic gun, had been allegedly stolen
from a police firing range used by St Charles Parish policemen, who
arrested Gary Tyler and were in charge of investigating the murder. It
had no fingerprints and there was no evidence showing whether it had
been recently fired. Despite a very thorough search by several policemen
it had not been found until after Nathalie Blanks indicated on which
seat she (and allegedly Tyler) was sitting. It was then found, hidden in
a seat through a slit in the cover. However, Gary Tyler did not have a
knife or any cutting instrument and none of the knives found in the bus
had his fingerprints. There were no tests performed on the bullet to
determine whether it was in fact the one that had killed Timothy Weber.
Gary Tyler's gloves had, until the day before the trial, been deemed by
the prosecution as not having any evidence on them relevant to the
charge against him. On that day however, the state informed the defence
that 3-4 particles of nitrates had been found in them. The gloves had
been subjected to an unreliable testing procedure which the Federal
Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had not used for years. Also, the alleged
particles were so scarce that there was not enough left for the defense
to carry out tests.
In order to get a conviction of first degree murder
the state was required to prove that Tyler had acted "with a specific
intent to kill or to inflict great bodily harm on more than one person".
The slight injury suffered by the man standing next to Timothy Weber
therefore became important.
Gary Tyler was convicted and sentenced to death on 14
Louisiana's death penalty law was declared
unconstitutional by the United States Supreme Court in 1976. In January
1977 the Supreme Court of Louisiana annulled the death sentence imposed
on Gary Tyler as a result of this ruling. However, it affirmed his
conviction for first degree murder. His death sentence was commuted to
life imprisonment without eligibility for parole, probation or
suspension of sentence for a period of 20 years.
As a result of a new appeal the US Court of Appeals,
Fifth Circuit, held in June 1980 that "Tyler was convicted on the basis
of an unconstitutional charge" and that his trial had been
"fundamentally unfair". The court reached this decision on a finding
that the trial judge had erred when he instructed the jury to find that
the defendant, Tyler, had "intended the natural and probable
consequences of his act" ie to kill or inflict great bodily harm on more
than one person.
After examining rulings in other cases the appeal
court concluded that "the threshold issue for this court is whether the
[judge's instruction] given here so infected the trial as to render it
fundamentally unfair. We conclude that it did."
The court found that, as Tyler's lawyer had failed to
object to the judge's erroneous instruction at the time of the trial,
this error could not normally be redressed on appeal. However, they
nevertheless vacated his conviction and ordered a retrial on the ground
that the lawyer's failure to object was so serious that it led to a
miscarriage of justice.
The state appealed against this decision and on 27
April 1981 the US Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit reversed its previous
decision. It did not dispute that the judge's charge to the jury was
unconstitutional and reiterated its view that the trial had been "fundamentally
unfair" but reversed its previous decision to order a new trial on the
issue of the defense lawyer's failure to object to the judge's
instruction at the appropriate time.
The US Supreme Court subsequently declined to hear
the case. [NB The US Supreme Court receives thousands of appeals each
year but selects only some for consideration. Others are not reviewed by
Further Proceedings In The Case
In 1989 Gary Tyler petitioned the Louisiana Board of
Pardons (LBP) to be granted pardon. This was the only means by which he
could have his sentence reduced to one which gave him the possibility of
parole. In October 1989 the LBP heard testimony for several hours but
postponed acting on the case to allow time for the state Attorney
General's office to answer questions raised about key evidence used in
On 14 December 1989 the LBP voted 3-2 to recommend
then Governor Charles Roemer to reduce Gary Tyler's sentence from life
imprisonment without parole for 20 years to a 60 year prison sentence.
The reduction of the sentence would make the prisoner eligible for
parole on completion of a third of the sentence, ie 20 years. This
apparent contradiction comes from a Louisiana Statute which provides
that no person who is serving a life sentence shall be eligible for
parole unless the sentence is first reduced to a fixed number of years
by the Louisiana Board of Pardons and the Governor. According to the
Board, therefore, Gary Tyler will not be eligible for parole after he
has served 20 years unless he has first received a pardon.
On 24 January 1990, however, Governor Roemer rejected
the recommendation of the LBP. He argued that Gary Tyler had had a fair
trial by all legal standards. This statement did not acknowledge the
finding by the Court of Appeal in two decisions that Tyler had been
"convicted on the basis of an unconstitutional charge" which had
"infected the trial" to the point of rendering it "fundamentally
He added that Tyler had not made serious efforts
towards rehabilitation because he had not enrolled in educational
programs while in prison (a charge Tyler strongly rejects). In May 1991
Gary Tyler passed his exams to obtain a secondary education certificate
(General Education Diploma, GED). He has been very involved in the
prison Drama Club and has taken a printing course in the prison; he has
been offered a job in a printing company in California to be taken up on
A new application for a full pardon was filed on 27
February 1991. In it Gary Tyler requested clemency "because he is
innocent of the charge against him, trial was fundamentally unfair and
he was denied the presumption of innocence, the Courts have refused to
take action because of an error made by his trial attorney and his trial
attorney was unable to remember why he made the error...". The LBP
considered the case and on 4 December 1991 it unanimously recommended to
reduce Gary Tyler's sentence to 50 years and to restore the benefit of
reduction for good behaviour making him immediately elegible for parole.
Governor Roemer had two alternatives open to him regarding Tyler's case:
to decide on the case (in favour or rejecting) or do nothing thus
leaving the decision to his succesor, Edwin Edwards. On 13 January 1992,
shortly before leaving office, Governor Roemer denied clemency to Gary
Tyler. Unlike previous occasions he gave no reasons for his decision and
refused to talk to the press about it.
Roemer's denial meant that Governor Edwards could not
consider Tyler's case for one year. The rules of the LBP state that
after a petition is denied the prisoner cannot re-apply until a year
later. The Board would then consider the case and make a recommendation
which would then go to the Governor. This process takes around a year to
In 1989 and 1991 Amnesty International wrote to the
Louisiana Board of Pardons and Governor Roemer urging them to grant a
pardon in the interest of justice.
Gary Tyler has applied again for a pardon to the
Louisiana Board of Pardons. This is his third attempt to be granted
pardon. The hearing before the Board is likely to take place in late
January 1995. The Board's recommendation would go to Governor Edwin
Edwards for final decision. Governor Edwards' term of office ends in
Gary Tyler's original sentence included eligibility
for parole after serving 20 years. However, the state of Louisiana is
now contesting this issue and denying that he will be automatically
eligible for parole in November 1995, when he will have served 20 years
in prison. His attorneys are currently pursuing litigation on this issue.
There are still sectors in Louisiana's society that
strongly oppose the granting of a pardon to Gary Tyler but, on the other
hand, his previous application elicited support from, among others,
church groups, members of the City of New Orleans Council, Louisiana
Senators and the National Lawyers Guild.
What You Can Do
Amnesty International believes that Gary Tyler was
denied a fair trial and that racial prejudice played a major part in his
prosecution. The racial and political context in which the offence and
prosecution took place brings the case under Article 1(b) of Amnesty
International's statute, by which the organization seeks a fair trial
for political prisoners.
Write to the Louisiana Board of Pardons:
Pointing out that the US Court of Appeal, Fifth Circuit, held in two
decisions that Gary Tyler had had a fundamentally unfair trial. However,
his conviction was upheld on a technical point: that his trial lawyer
had failed to present an objection at the right time (about the judge's
instruction to the jury)
Urging the Louisiana Board of Pardons to make a
unanimous recommendation in favour of granting a pardon to give Governor
Edwards a clear signal to go along with the Board's recommendation
Point out that AI believes that grave doubts about
his guilt remain 19 years after his conviction at the age of 16 and that
the interest of justice would best be served by granting his petition
Express sympathy for the victim and his relatives.
Write to Governor Edwin Edwards, using some of
the points above:
call on him to grant a pardon to Gary Tyler, who has spent more than
half his life in prison
Thirty Years of Injustice
Free Gary Tyler
By Joe Allen
Gary Tyler, at one time
the youngest person on death row, turned forty-eight years old this July.
He has spent thirty-two of those years in jail for a crime he did not
commit. The case of Gary Tyler is one of the great miscarriages of
justice in the modern history of the United States, in a country where
the miscarriage of justice is part of the daily routine of government
business. "This case is just permeated with racism all the way through
it," declared Mary Howell, Gary's longtime attorney, "from the initial
event all the way up to the pardon process." Yet, far too few people are
aware of Gary Tyler's case, which in the mid-1970s mobilized thousands
across the country for his freedom and led Amnesty International to
declare him a political prisoner. Over the last twenty years, hundreds
of death row inmates and scores of others have been exonerated for the
crimes they were falsely convicted of by racist and corrupt prosecutors.
It's long past time that Gary Tyler should have gone free.
In 1975, Gary Tyler, an
African-American teenager, was wrongly convicted by an all-white
jury for the murder of Timothy Weber, a thirteen-year-old white
youth. Weber had been killed the previous year during an attack by a
racist white mob on a school bus filled with African-American high
school students in Destrehan, Louisiana. Tyler's trial was
characterized by coerced testimony, planted evidence, judicial
misconduct, and an incompetent defense. He was sentenced to death by
electrocution at the age of seventeen. On the first appeal of his
conviction in1981, a federal appeals court said that Tyler was "denied
a fundamentally fair trial," but refused to order a new one for him.
During this same period, the Louisiana death penalty was ruled
unconstitutional. Gary Tyler's death sentence was lifted and he was
resentenced to life in prison. He is currently incarcerated in
Louisiana's infamous Angola prison.
Racism in the high schools
In 1974, the tensions
created by the resistance of whites to desegregation resulted in
frequent clashes in which the Ku Klux Klan, the white supremacist
organization, played a leading role.
To understand the case of Gary
Tyler, we must go back to a largely forgotten episode in American
politics-the battle over the desegregation of public schools in the
1970s, and the eruption of racist violence that occurred in reaction to
it across the country. In 1954, the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice
Earl Warren, ordered the desegregation of public schools "with all
deliberate speed." The ruling was seen as a huge victory for the NAACP
and those who advocated a legal strategy for ending Jim Crow in the
United States. However, white dominated, racist local school boards in
the South and the North (largely dominated by the Democratic Party) were
able to avoid implementing the court order for years, if not decades.
They did this through a variety of deceitful methods that included,
among other things, the use of busing to keep schools segregated.
By the early to mid-seventies,
the time had run out for most of these local school boards, and the
federal courts ordered them to come up with plans to desegregate the
schools. This almost always involved busing Black schools kids from
their largely Black neighborhoods into all-white neighborhoods, where
they often encountered racist mobs.
In fact, some of the most
cowardly and despicable displays of racism ever captured on film took
place during this period of time. Boston was the worst example of this,
if only because the city had an undeserved "liberal" reputation. When
photos of the racist violence in Boston hit the front pages of
newspapers across the country and the footage was televised on the
network news, it shocked many people.
White racist, mobs-led mostly by
parents and egged on by local Democratic Party leaders-attacked school
buses as they entered white neighborhoods with rocks and bottles. The
white mobs broke the windows of the buses and injured the terrified
Black school kids. The police, largely drawn from the same white
neighborhoods, stood by or dragged their feet and intervened too late to
stop the violence.
Boston may have been the most
famous example of the "battle over busing," as the media called it, but
it wasn't the only place where racist violence occurred. The opposition
to court ordered desegregation spread across the country, particularly
in such midsized cities as Detroit, Michigan; Louisville, Kentucky;
Wilmington, North Carolina; and Richmond, California.
Racist violence also spread to
relatively isolated areas, like Destrehan, Louisiana, where Gary Tyler
was a student at the local high school. The bigots tried to cloak their
opposition to integration by claiming that they were only opposed to "forced
busing" and were defending "neighborhood schools," but the open display
of Confederate flags and the racist filth spewed by politicians and "anti-busing"
activists revealed their real agenda.
They were encouraged by
unelected Republican President Gerald Ford, who publicly supported them,
and the Republican establishment, which began to realize that busing,
along with a host of other issues, could be used to drive a wedge
between the national Democratic Party and urban, white voters.
This political opportunity was
also not missed by Klan and neo-Nazi organizations, which recruited
members and organized openly. In Louisiana, David Duke-Grand Wizard of
the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), who in his college years paraded
around in a Nazi uniform-placed himself at the center of the anti-busing
Coming back to the South, it
was like taking me out of the light and putting me into darkness"
-Gary Tyler, 1990
Destrehan is located in St.
Charles Parish, Louisiana. It is part of Louisiana's old plantation
country that runs along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and
the state capitol Baton Rouge. While the plantations are almost entirely
gone, the elegant mansions built by slave labor remain and are a major
tourist attraction. "Plantation homes are to Louisiana what the crown
jewels are to England-each is a sparkling gem, in an equally
spellbinding setting, with a unique story attached," according to one of
Louisiana's tourist Web sites.
"The unique story" referred to
is the Gone With the Wind version of history of the plantation
South commonly found in the former states of the Confederacy. What's
missing from this unique story is the tyranny and misery of slavery and
Jim Crow, and the persistence of racism that continues to dominate the
lives of its Black residents to this very day. Oil replaced agriculture
as the master of the Louisiana economy long ago.
For the past seventy years, the
economy of St. Charles and the other surrounding parishes has been
dominated by the petrochemical industry, whose smokestacks and storage
bins dot the landscape. Many oil refineries were built on or adjacent to
the old plantations. Though a fabulously profitable industry, it has
provided very little employment over the decades for Blacks or whites in
Gary Tyler was born in New
Orleans in 1958. In 1970, the Tyler family moved to St. Rose, about
twenty miles upriver from New Orleans. Destrehan is a short five miles
further north. His mother Juanita Tyler, worked as a domestic servant,
and her husband Uylos, a maintenance man who held down three jobs
simultaneously, worked to support a family of eleven kids.
When he was twelve years old,
Gary left Louisiana to live with his sister Ella in the Watts section of
Los Angeles, now better known as South-Central. "There," according to
journalist Amy Singer, "he was exposed to people and ideas that hadn't
made their way to St. Rose: the Black Panthers; activist Angela Davis;
the antiwar movement. Tyler attended rallies and began to develop a
Gary returned to Louisiana two
years later, in 1972, and was not at all happy about it. "Coming back to
the South, it was like taking me out of the light and putting me into
darkness," Gary lamented many years later.
Living in Los Angeles at the
height of the Black Power and antiwar movements was clearly exciting and
interesting compared to living in an isolated area of the country like
St. Charles Parish. The "darkness"-we can infer-was the grinding poverty
and suffocating racism of small town Louisiana life. This is when his
scrapes with the law began.
Gary was arrested twice for
burglary (one he says he's guilty of and another he says he didn't do)
and spent seven months in a juvenile institution. He was also considered
something of a radical; intelligent and outspoken, and someone who
demanded respect from persons in authority.
Gary Tyler, in short, was the
type of young Black person that cops, particularly white cops in small
Southern towns, really despise; a police officer years later would refer
to him as a "smart nigger."
They were on the attack, man.
It was panic.
-Terry Tyler, Gary's brother
When the crisis came at
Destrehan High School, Gary Tyler already loomed large in the minds of
key members of the local sheriff's department as a "troublemaker"; but
the chain of events that led to his arrest and persecution began years
before October 1974.
The school authorities in
Destrehan strongly resisted the pressure for school integration during
the 1960s. The federal courts ultimately ordered the Destrehan
authorities to begin desegregating their schools in 1968. That, however,
didn't put an end to the deeply ingrained racism of the white residents
or their resistance to school integration. Racist violence continued for
many years and appears to have escalated during 1974.
According to Amnesty
International, "In 1974, the tensions created by the resistance of
whites to desegregation resulted in frequent clashes in which the Ku
Klux Klan, the white supremacist organization, played a leading role."
The Friday night football games became a scene of frequent fights
between the white and Black students of Destrehan High school. On the
evening of October 4, one such fight broke out between Black and white
students at the football game. The fight didn't end that night.
When Destrehan High School
opened the following Monday (October 7), lunchtime fights between Blacks
and whites continued, and several people including a teacher were
stabbed. Later at Gary's trial, Major Charles Faucheux of the Destrehan
Sheriff's Department testified that he watched as "one of the Black
studentsran to the highway and probably about fifty white students
chased after him." The principal ordered Destehan High School closed and
the Black students evacuated.
Gary Tyler, who was a sophomore
at the time, was suspended by the school's assistant principal that
morning, though he says that he wasn't involved in the fighting, and was
sent home. Fatefully for Gary, he was picked up while hitchhiking home
by Destrehan Deputy Sheriff V.J. St. Pierre (who also happened to be
Timothy Weber's cousin), who searched him, found nothing, and took him
back to Destrehan High just as Black students were being evacuated from
Gary hopped on to Bus 91, along
with sixty-five other Black students, as it began to pull out of campus.
Bus 91 was immediately besieged by a white mob of 200 students (and by
some accounts, non-students and parents) throwing rocks, bottles, and
screaming racist epithets.
Gary's brother Terry, who was
also on Bus 91, described the terrifying scene years later to journalist
Adam Nossiter. "They were on the attack, man. It was panic," Terry said.
It was as if "you be out on a boat, and the boat's sinking."
Suddenly, one student on the bus
looked out the window and screamed, "Look at that white boy with that
gun." Seconds later the Black students hit the floor of the bus after
hearing a popping sound, believing that someone was shooting at them.
Outside the bus Timothy Weber fell to the ground wounded. Deputy St.
Pierre rushed him to the hospital, where he later died from a gunshot
The police stopped the bus,
according to Patricia Files, another Black student, stormed onto it, and
went on a "rampage." They "started treating us like animals." Then the
police ordered all the Black students off the bus and searched them. It
should be emphasized that no one from the white mob was stopped or
searched by the police for weapons.
Police searched all the Black
students on the bus and didn't find a gun. Three deputies searched the
bus several times and, again, no gun was found. Then one of the
sheriff's deputies began to harass Gary Tyler's cousin Ike Randall about
why he was wearing a .22-caliber bullet on a chain. Gary said that there
wasn't anything wrong with that, and was arrested for "disturbing the
He was placed in a police car
and taken to the local substation of the St. Charles Parish Sheriff's
Department. Despite the fact that no gun was found on any Black student
riding on Bus 91, and no weapon was found on the bus, all of the Black
students were loaded back onto the bus and taken to the same sheriff's
substation. This was the beginning of Gary Tyler's long nightmare.
Within days of the death of
Timothy Weber, a young David Duke, a rising star in Klan and neo-Nazi
politics in the United States, arrived in Destrehan with what he called
"security teams" to protect the white residents from "black savages" and
"murderers." He also laid a wreath at a memorial for Timothy Weber. This
was the beginning of David Duke's sometimes peripheral but always
nefarious role in the persecution of Gary Tyler.
A legal lynching
The system worked fine.
This is the prototypical Southern legal lynching.
Soon after arriving in the
police station, the threats and the beatings began. According to Gary,
St. Pierre returned to the police station and screamed, "I'm getting the
motherfucker that did it."
A deputy handed St. Pierre a
blackjack and he started beating Gary while another deputy joined in and
began repeatedly kicking Gary in the back and legs. They kept beating
him and asking him who killed Weber. Gary told them he didn't know. Yet,
St. Pierre kept at it, "Nigger, you're going to tell me something."
Another sheriff's deputy entered
the room and warned them that people downstairs could hear Gary's
screams. One of those people was Gary's mother, Juanita, who came to the
station after hearing about the terrifying events at the high school and
learning that her sons had been taken there.
After all the other students had
been released except Gary, she went into the station to look for him. "I
could hear the sounds of the beatings," she recounted in a 1990
interview. "It was like a smothered holler. The sounds of a person
hollering. Sounds of licks. Bam, pow." When she saw Gary later, the
aftereffects of the beatings were clear. "He was just trembling."
The cops weren't able to beat a
confession out of Gary, but others began to crack under pressure. The
first was Natalie Blanks. She would eventually become the key
prosecution witness against Gary. She was also his unhappy ex-girlfriend.
Gary's arrest for murder was based on her statements to the police.
Blanks was a young woman with a lot of emotional problems who had been
undergoing treatment at a local mental health clinic for several years.
She also had a history of making false police reports, including one
that she was kidnapped, a claim that was investigated by none other than
Deputy Sheriff St. Pierre.
Another Black student on Bus 91
got a visit from the police that night. Larry Dabney shared the same bus
seat with Gary Tyler. "It was the scariest thing that ever happened to
me," he said in his affidavit. "They didn't even ask me what I saw. They
told me flat out that I was going to be their witness. They started
telling me what my statement was going to be. 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 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."
Where did the gun that police
claimed killed Timothy Weber come from? How did they find it? After all,
the police searched the bus for three hours after the shooting and found
nothing. Natalie Banks identified where Gary was sitting and the police
removed the seat from the bus and, again, found nothing.
Later, the police said they "discovered"
the gun-a .45 caliber automatic-stuffed inside the seat that Gary was
sitting on. According to Amy Singer, "A photograph of the seat taken
before they removed the gun shows an obvious bulge." The gun had no
fingerprints on it and was later identified as stolen from a firing
range that was used by St Charles Parish Sheriff's deputies.
What tied Gary to the gun? Gary
wore gloves to school that day and they were confiscated by the police
after his arrest and sent to the Southeastern Louisiana Regional
Criminalistics Laboratory for testing. The gloves were apparently
misplaced for several weeks before the head of the lab, Herman Parrish,
finally claimed that he tested them and found gunpowder residue on them.
No independent testing was done because all the alleged residue was used
up by Parrish.
In 1976, Parrish resigned from
his position at the crime lab after he was accused of lying about test
results in another case. The bullet that police claimed killed Timothy
Weber was never even tested to see if it ever passed through a human
body. Everything points to the likelihood that the police fabricated the
gun evidence against Gary Tyler.
Planted evidence, coerced
testimony, and faked test results; all that was needed was a compliant
judge and jury, and the prosecutors certainly got them. The presiding
judge at Gary's trial was Judge Ruche Marino, who was identified by some
press accounts of the time as being a former member of the White
Citizens Council of Louisiana. In a region that is 25 percent African
American, the trial impaneled an all-white jury.
Gary Tyler's inept defense
attorney, Jack Williams, gave incalculable help to the prosecution. His
total pretrial preparation consisted of meeting Gary once or twice and
reading the grand jury transcripts. But this was only the beginning of
his blunders and missteps; his general incompetence would plague Gary
for years to come.
Judge Marino was consistently
biased in favor of the prosecution. He even instructed the jury that
they could presume Gary guilty before their deliberations. Gary's trial
lasted five days and the jury deliberation three hours before he was
found guilty of first-degree murder, in November 1975. Under Louisiana
law at the time, this was an automatic death sentence. His date of
execution was set for May 1, 1976. At seventeen, he was the youngest
person on death row in the United States.
Free Gary Tyler
believes that Gary Tyler was denied a fair trial and that racial
prejudice played a major part in his prosecution. The racial and
political context in which the offence and prosecution took
place brings the case under Article 1(b) of Amnesty
International's statute, by which the organization seeks a fair
trial for political prisoners.
Soon after Gary's arrest, the
Tyler family, led by his mother Juanita, threw themselves into
organizing a campaign to stop his legal lynching. They received the
crucial help of veteran Louisiana Student Nonviolent Coordinating
Committee (SNCC) activist and draft resister Walter Collins, who helped
set up a New Orleans-based Gary Tyler Defense Committee.
Collins and the Tyler family
concentrated on getting Gary's supporters to fill the court room during
the trial, not only to show the judge and prosecutor community support
for Gary but also to counter the influence of the KKK, who rallied
outside for Gary's conviction.
After an execution date was set
for Gary, there was an urgent need to turn the Free Gary Tyler Campaign
into a national effort. The campaign got a boost when Natalie Blanks
recanted her testimony, charging that the police had coerced her into
Gary's new attorney, Jack
Peebles, petitioned the court for a hearing to allow for the new
evidence to be heard. Unfortunately, this meant going back to the very
same Judge Ruche Marino. True to form, Marino ignored Blanks'
recantation and allowed Gary's conviction to stand.
However, Blanks' bombshell
revelations, along with the obvious irregularities of the trial,
provided more than enough of a basis for a national campaign, despite
the fact that the national media mostly ignored the Tyler case.
The New York Times, for
example, ran its first article on the Tyler case in late March 1976, six
weeks before his scheduled execution. One of the groups that most
enthusiastically took up Gary's case was the Red Tide, the youth group
of the International Socialists. The Red Tide was a racially mixed,
socialist organization that organized around high schools in Detroit, a
city experiencing the same kind of violent opposition to school
integration that had resulted in the persecution of Gary Tyler.
For many of the Red Tiders, Gary
Tyler became a deeply personal symbol of political persecution. In late
April 1976, Gary's lawyers won him his first victory. His execution was
postponed, pending the outcome of his appeals in the Louisiana state
courts. Meanwhile, Free Gary Tyler committees were being formed across
the country. Juanita Tyler and Walter Collins spoke before a packed
meeting of 350 people on June 13, 1976, demanding Gary's freedom in
The late civil rights activist
Rosa Parks was the main speaker and campaigned on Gary's behalf. She was
later joined by Reuben "Hurricane" Carter, the former boxing champion
who spent a decade in prison for a crime he didn't commit. The campaign
to free Gary peaked during the latter half of 1976, when over 1,500
marched through New Orleans on July 24, and in November, when petitions
with more than 92,000 signatures demanding Gary's freedom were delivered
to Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards.
Even the American Federation of
Teachers, which had a very mixed record on the issue of racism in the
public schools, passed a resolution in support of Gary Tyler. In July
1976, while Gary's state court appeals were still pending, the U.S.
Supreme Court ruled that the Louisiana death penalty was
unconstitutional. Gary, along with everyone else on Louisiana's death
row, was spared.
While all of this was going on,
Gary's tormentors turned their attention to harassing members of the
Tyler family and campaign supporters. Gary's mother and father were
fired from their jobs.
On March 26, 1976, white "nightriders"
(Klan supporters if not outright Klansmen) shot and killed Richard Dunn,
a young Black man returning from a fundraising dance for Gary Tyler at
Southern University in New Orleans. (The gunman was later captured and
served ten years in prison.)
Klansmen in full-dress uniforms
drove openly through the Tylers' hometown of St. Rose, while others, out
of uniform, stalked members the Tyler family around their community.
While there is no hard evidence that David Duke directed these
activities, one cannot help but notice that these activities bore a
striking resemblance to the "security" measures that he was calling for
at the time.
Gary's brother Terry and Donald
Files, an important defense witness, were arrested on charges of
burglary. The alleged burglary happened while Terry was in Detroit
speaking on his brother's behalf at a public rally on May 16, 1976.
Judge Marino set a $5,000 bond for each. In June 1976, Marino once again
held another of Gary's brothers, Steven, on $2,700 bond for a charge of
"disturbing the police."
On January 27, 1977, the police
invaded Mrs. Tyler's home at gunpoint, arrested one of her son's for
robbery, and released him later without charging him. Despite the
constant harassment and death threats, the Tyler family and the campaign
persevered. Even at his high school, Gary's classmates (both Black and
white) organized the Gary Tyler Freedom Fighters.
The year 1977 was an important
turning point in Gary's case-unfortunately for the worse. On January 24,
1977, the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld Gary's conviction. Short of a
major breakthrough in the case, Gary was looking at years in prison.
During the course of the year, the national campaign began to wane. Once
the death sentence was lifted from Gary's head, it became difficult to
sustain the campaign.
The initial urgency to save him
from the electric chair was gone, and the campaign was ill prepared for
what was going to be a long effort after the Louisiana Supreme Court
upheld his conviction. This was exacerbated by the decline of the Left
in the United States, in particular, the two organizations whose members
had been the most committed to Gary's campaign across the country.
Gary's lawyer, Jack Peebles,
continued the legal fight, filing a petition in 1978 for "biased
instruction" by Judge Marino during Gary's trial with the Federal Court
of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.
In 1980, the court ruled in
Gary's favor. It seemed that finally Gary would get some justice.
However, the prosecutors appealed the decision. They were again helped
by Gary's first lawyer Jack Williams, who couldn't remember why he
hadn't objected to Marino's biased instructions at the trial. As a
result the court didn't order a new trial. "It is a shocking thing there
is someone in prison in this country for whom the courts have said, 'Your
trial was fundamentally unfair, you've been denied the presumption of
innocence, but we won't give you a fair trial because your lawyer can't
remember why he didn't object,'" Mary Howell declared in 1987.
Since the late 1980s, Gary has
made several efforts to get paroled, but in each case they fell victim
to Louisiana's racial politics. The most serious effort came in 198990,
when the pardon board voted 3 to 2 to recommend that Gary's sentence be
commuted from life to sixty years, with eligibility for parole after
serving twenty years. This was forwarded to then Democratic Louisiana
Buddy Roemer, who rejected the pardon board's recommendations.
Facing a serious fight for the
governor's office from David Duke-Klansman now turned Republican, who
garnered hundreds of thousands of votes in his campaigns for Louisiana
governor and U.S. senator on a thinly disguised racist program-Roemer
didn't want to be outflanked on the right.
The most serious effort came in
198990, when the pardon board voted 3 to 2 to recommend that Gary's
sentence be commuted from life to sixty years, with eligibility for
parole after serving twenty years. This was forwarded to then Louisiana
governor, Democrat Buddy Roemer, who rejected the pardon board's
recommendations despite receiving petitions with 12,000 signatures
calling for Gary's pardon.
Why did Roemer reject a pardon
for Gary? One can speculate that Roemer expected to face David Duke in
his upcoming bid for reelection in 1991-Klansman turned Republican, who
garnered hundreds of thousands of votes in his 1990 campaign for U.S.
senator on an openly racist program. Despite his effort to outflank Duke,
Roemer was easily defeated in a three-way race. Duke would later be
defeated by the notoriously corrupt Democratic candidate and former
governor, Edwin Edwards.
Three decades on
I emphatically and
unequivocally maintain my innocence as I did in 1974 and hope that
one day justice will eventually prevail in this matter.
I just wish for the day he
could be home. It's been so long.
-Juanita Tyler, Gary's
mother, May 24, 2006.
For the past three decades, Gary
Tyler has been incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at
Angola. The 18,000-acre penitentiary, nick-named "the farm," is the
largest maximum security prison in the country, housing 5,000 men.
The Angola prison population is
75 percent Black, and 85 percent of those sentenced there will probably
die there. Angola is built on a former slave plantation and has been
running continuously since the end of the Civil War. Along with other
infamous prisons in the South (like Mississippi's Parchman Farm), "it is
hard not to seethe entire penal system simply as revenge against Blacks
for the South's defeat in the Civil War." Even to this day, slavery
casts a long shadow over the Southern penal system, especially
Louisiana's. Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the
For every 100,000 residents of
the state, 816 are sentenced prisoners. Blacks make up 32 percent of
Louisiana's population, but they constitute 72 percent of the state's
prison population. While the life of prisoners inside of Angola is
little better than slavery. Gary, for example, spent many years in
solitary confinement because he refused to pick cotton for 3 cents an
How is it possible that, given
all the evidence of his innocence and the blatantly racist nature of his
frame-up, Gary Tyler is still in prison? Gary's case takes us straight
into the heart of darkness of the Louisiana criminal justice system.
Powerful political forces have conspired to keep him behind bars. Both
racism and political persecution have played their part.
In 1990, the Louisiana attorney
general argued against a pardon for Tyler, because he has "demanded that
he be allowed to correspond with socialist and communist publications
like the Socialist Worker." Gary Tyler is a political prisoner
and nothing less than a serious fight by those who are outraged and want
to support him will win Gary his freedom.
There has been a great reversal
in the rights of death row prisoners. According to author David Lindorff,
The Supreme Court, and the
Clinton administration's 1995 Effective Death Penalty Act have
combined to make it almost impossible to appeal cases based upon new
evidence. Any appellate defense lawyer will tell you that in both
capital and non-capital cases, the highest court, and the appeals
courts, too, generally only will grant new trials where there has
been a procedural error. They don't give a damn about new evidence,
recanted witnesses, etc. Those kinds of things, that actually prove
innocence or corrupted trials, have to be beyond overwhelming to win
a new trial.
The draconian character of the
legal system in capital cases has only gotten more pronounced since the
so-called war on terror under George W. Bush.
Yet the last decade has also
seen a sea change in public attitudes towards the criminal justice
system. Hundreds of innocent people have been released from prison,
after it was shown that they were innocent or received unfair trials.
But far too many remain in prison. "Don't forget about Gary Tyler
because there are thousands more like him," declared Terry Tyler, Gary's
older brother. Hurricane Katrina has ripped the mask off of racism and
class oppression in this country generally, and in Louisiana in
While the tens of thousands of
mostly Black, working class and poor residents of New Orleans fight to
return to their homes and rebuild their shattered lives, they will
continue to be confronted by the forces of racism and class oppression
that seek to turn the city into a jazz and blues version of Disneyland.
Louisiana's already racist and corrupt judicial system will be
increasingly put at the disposal of creating this "new" New Orleans. In
all of these upcoming battles, the fight to free Gary Tyler should be
part of them. Gary Tyler should not be forgotten.
Thanks to Larry Bradshaw,
Paul D'Amato, Michael Letwin, David Lindorff, and the Tyler family for
their help in writing this article, which originally appeared in the
print edition of the International Socialist Review.
Letters of support can be
Gary Tyler # 84156
Louisiana State Penitentiary
Angola, LA 70712