May 1, 2016
Gary Tyler: Louisiana Prisoner Walks Free After 41 Years Of 'Unconstitutional Life Sentence'

A Louisiana man convicted in 1975 for a murder he says he didn't commit was released from prison on Friday, after spending almost 42 years in the maximum security Angola prison.

The Times-Picayune reports that Gary Tyler, 57, was just 16 when he was sentenced to die for the murder of 13-year-old Timothy Weber. The two went to school together at Destrehan High School, Charles St. Parish. Tyler, a black man, was convicted by an all-white jury after being tried as an adult for capital murder.

Tyler was on a school bus on October 7, 1974, when the he passed a hundreds white students and adults who were protesting, yelling, and throwing rocks and bottles at the bus full of black students. Tensions were high at Destrehan High School in 1974, after officials integrated black students in the former predominantly white school.

Timothy Weber was standing outside with this mother, near the bus Tyler was on, when he was shot and killed. Police searched the school bus and didn't find anything, but when they searched the bus a second time, they uncovered a gun stuffed inside the seat where Tyler sat.

During sentencing, Tyler learned his fate: death. He became the youngest person in Louisiana on death row. After his sentencing, numerous black and white students recanted their stories, and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals called his sentence "unconstitutional," since he was never given the benefit of the presumption of innocence. One of the students who was on the bus with Tyler in 1974 recalled that he was threatened by police.

"It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me. 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."

Regardless, Tyler was shipped to Angola, now known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary, a maximum-security prison known for abuse against inmates and racial tensions. In 1976, Tyler's death sentence was commuted to a life sentence after state laws ruled the death penalty as unconstitutional. Over the next 20 years, the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Paroles voted several times to lessen Tyler's sentence.

It wasn't until 2012, after Louisiana ruled that life without parole for juveniles was also unconstitutional that Tyler got his first glimmer of hope. Since the law was retroactive, Tyler's lawyers persuaded the St. Charles Parish district attorney's office to reduce his murder charge to manslaughter, which carries a sentence of 21 years. After serving over twice the amount of time for manslaughter, Tyler was released on April 30, at around 4:45 p.m.

Free Gary Tyler Campaign

Although Tyler agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge in order to get out of prison, there are numerous issues that arose from his case. Along with his attorneys and Louisiana Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) activist Walter Collins, a group of supporters spent years gathering information to help get him out of jail. Some of the key findings include the following.
  • The bus driver was adamant that not only was the gun shot fired from outside of the bus, but there there was no gun anywhere on the bus.
  • The gun police later found on the bus disappeared from the evidence room.
  • The gun, a Colt.45 government-issue, was reported stolen from the sheriff's department firing range.
  • Police persecuted Tyler well before the shooting, and labeled him a "troublemaker."
  • One of the students on the bus yelled, "Look at that white boy with that gun."
  • Police immediately searched all black students on the bus, but never once searched the white people outside of the bus.
  • The gun used as evidence had no fingerprints on it.
Gary Tyler plans to stay with his sister in Louisiana temporarily before moving out of state. His counselor, Norris Henderson, wouldn't say where he was moving to, and indicated that right now he needs time adjust to life outside of prison.
"This is all new for him. Let's just give him a few minutes to breathe."
[Photo by msppmoore/Creative Commons]