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Why has Gary Tyler spent three decades behind bars?
Miscarriage of justice

February 16, 2007 | Pages 6 and 7

JOE ALLEN tells the story of one of the great travesties of justice of our time--the nearly forgotten case of Gary Tyler, which is now back in the national spotlight after a series of articles by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert.

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GARY TYLER has spent the past three decades in Louisiana's infamous Angola prison for a crime he didn't commit--the 1974 murder of Timothy Weber.

Gary was originally sentenced to die in the electric chair in 1976. At age 17, he was the youngest person on death row in the U.S. at the time. When the death penalty was later ruled unconstitutional in Louisiana, he was re-sentenced to life in prison. In 1980, a higher court acknowledged that Gary's trial was "fundamentally unfair," but didn't order a new trial. Amnesty International would later declare him a "political prisoner."

In the words of Bob Herbert writing in the New York Times, despite being spared from the electric chair, Tyler "has in fact paid with his life." But renewed interest in Gary Tyler's case can spark a new national campaign to free him from unjust imprisonment.

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THE CASE of Gary Tyler has its roots in the 1970s and the battle over the desegregation of public schools--plus the eruption of racist violence in reaction to desegregation across the country.

What you can do

Joe Allen's "Gary Tyler: Three decades of injustice," published in the International Socialist Review last year, began to focus renewed attention on this long forgotten case.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert's series of articles on the Tyler case are available at the Times Web site. They have also been posted at the Free Gary Tyler Web site, starting with the article "A Death in Destrehan."

Following Herbert's columns, Amnesty International released a new statement calling for a pardon for Tyler. The full statement can be read at the Free Gary Tyler Web site.

Tyler's supporters have organized a petition campaign calling on Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to pardon Gary. Hundreds of people have already signed the petition online. You can also download the petition to circulate in your neighborhood, church or school. For more information on getting involved in the struggle, see the Contact Information page of the Free Gary Tyler Web site.

Letters of support to Gary can be sent to: Gary Tyler #84156, Louisiana State Penitentiary, ASH-4, Angola, LA 70712.

 

Though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the mid-1950s that public schools must be desegregated "with all deliberate speed"--in its famous Brown v. Topeka Board of Education decision--many districts evaded implementing the ruling for years, if not decades.

When school districts were forced to comply by court rulings, many cities, most notoriously Boston, erupted in racist violence as whites resisted desegregation with mob violence directed at defenseless Black schoolchildren. The bigots tried to cloak their opposition to integration by claiming 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.

This political opportunity was not missed by Klan and neo-Nazi organizations, which recruited members and organized openly. In Louisiana, David Duke--the grand wizard of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, who later tried to transform himself into a respectable Republican politician--placed himself at the center of the anti-busing movement.

Racist violence also spread to relatively isolated areas--like Destrehan, La., where Gary Tyler was a student at the local high school.

School authorities in Destrehan strongly resisted the pressure for integration during the 1960s. The federal courts ultimately ordered the Destrehan authorities to begin desegregating in 1968.

That, however, didn't put an end to the deeply ingrained racism of white residents or their resistance to school integration. Racist violence in the Destrehan area 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."

Gary Tyler's long nightmare began on October 7, 1974, a Monday morning when fighting between Black and white students spilled over from the previous Friday night football game. A lunchtime fight between Blacks and whites broke out, and several people, including a teacher, were stabbed. The principal ordered Destrehan High School closed and the Black students evacuated.

Later at Gary's trial, a member of sheriff's department testified that he watched as "one of the Black students ran to the highway, and probably about 50 white students chased after him."

Gary had been suspended that morning and sent home. Fatefully, he was picked up while hitchhiking home by Deputy Sheriff V.J. St. Pierre, who searched him, found nothing and took him back to Destrehan High just as the Black students were being evacuated.

Gary got on Bus 91 along with 65 other Black students as it began to pull out of the campus. The bus was immediately besieged by a white mob of 200 students and parents, throwing rocks, bottles, and screaming racist epithets. Terry Tyler, Gary's brother, who was also on Bus 91, described the terrifying scene: "They were on the attack, man. It was panic." 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 someone was shooting at them.

Outside the bus, Timothy Weber fell to the ground, wounded. Deputy Sheriff St. Pierre (who happened to be Weber's cousin) rushed him to the hospital, where he later died from a gunshot wound.

The police stopped the bus and, according to Patricia Files, another Black student, stormed onto it and went on a "rampage." They "started treating us like animals." 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. No one from the white mob was stopped or searched by the police for weapons.

After speaking up in defense of his cousin, who was being harassed by a deputy, Gary was arrested for "disturbing the peace."

Destrehan was gripped by a racist hysteria. Within days of Timothy Weber's death, a young David Duke had arrived with what he called "security teams," to protect the white residents from "Black savages" and "murderers."

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SOON AFTER Gary arrived in the sheriff's sub-station, the threats and 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.

Gary's mother, Juanita, came to the station after hearing about the terrifying events at the high school. "I could hear the sounds of the beatings," she recounted in a 1990 interview to journalist Adam Nossiter. "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," she said.

Gary says the police kept beating him and demanding to know who killed Weber. Gary told them he didn't know. But St. Pierre kept at it, yelling, "Nigger, you're going to tell me something."

The cops weren't able to beat a false 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. Blanks had a history of making false police reports, including one that she was kidnapped--a claim that had been investigated by none other than Deputy Sheriff St. Pierre.

Another Black student on Bus 91 got a visit from police that night. Larry Dabney had shared a bus seat with Gary Tyler.

"It was the scariest thing that ever happened to me," Dabney said of the police interrogation, in an affidavit he made years later. "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 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 Timothy Weber was killed with come from? Police searched the bus for three hours after the shooting and found nothing. Later, they claimed they "discovered" the gun stuffed inside the seat Gary was sitting on. According to journalist Amy Singer, "A photograph of the seat taken before they removed the gun shows an obvious bulge"--one that would have been hard to overlook in the previous search.

The gun had no fingerprints on it and was later identified as having been stolen from a firing range used by St. Charles Parish sheriff's deputies.

What tied Gary to the gun? Gary wore gloves to school that day, and they were tested by Herman Parrish, head of the Southeastern Louisiana Regional Criminalistics Laboratory. Parrish claimed he found gunpowder residue on the gloves, but no independent testing was done, supposedly because Parrish had used up all the alleged residue.

Two years later, in 1976, Parrish resigned from his position at the crime lab after he was accused of lying about test results in another case. Meanwhile, the bullet that police claimed killed Timothy Weber was never even tested to see if it passed through a human body.

Planted evidence, coerced testimony, 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 Ruche Marino, identified by some press accounts of the time as a former member of the White Citizens Council of Louisiana--the suit-and-tie version of the Ku Klux Klan. In a region that is 25 percent African American, the trial was heard by 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.

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 deliberated 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, even though the U.S. Supreme Court had halted executions nationwide several years previously. Gary's execution date was set for May 1, 1976. At 17, he was the youngest person on death row in the United States.

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THE TYLER family, led by his mother Juanita, had thrown themselves into a campaign to stop Gary's legal lynching from right after his arrest. The struggle got a boost when Natalie Blanks recanted her testimony, charging that police had coerced her into testifying falsely.

Gary's new attorney, Jack Peebles, petitioned the court for a hearing to allow the new evidence to be heard. Unfortunately, this meant going back to the very same Judge Ruche Marino. True to form, Marino ignored Blanks' recanting, and allowed Gary's conviction to stand.

However, Blanks' bombshell revelations, along with the obvious irregularities of the trial, provided the basis for a national campaign--even though the mainstream media mostly ignored the Tyler case. In late April 1976, Gary's lawyers won him his first victory. His execution was postponed, pending the outcome of appeals in the Louisiana state courts.

Meanwhile, Free Gary Tyler committees were being formed across the country. Juanita Tyler and veteran anti-racist activist Walter Collins spoke before a packed meeting of 350 people in Detroit on June 13, 1976, demanding Gary's freedom. Rosa Parks was the main speaker and campaigned on Gary's behalf. She was later joined by Rubin "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 in the latter half of 1976, when over 1,500 marched through New Orleans on July 24, and when petitions with more than 92,000 signatures demanding Gary's freedom were delivered in November to Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards. Even the American Federation of Teachers, which had a mixed record on the issue of racism in public schools, passed a resolution in support of Gary Tyler.

In July 1976, while his 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.

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.

Gary's lawyer, Jack Peebles, continued the legal fight, filing a petition in 1978 over Judge Marino's "biased instruction" during Gary's trial. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Gary's favor in 1980. It seemed that Gary would get some justice.

But 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. A new trial was never ordered.

As Gary's longtime lawyer, Mary Howell, said in 1987, "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.'"

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 attempt came in 1989-90, when the pardon board voted 3 to 2 to recommend that Gary's sentence be commuted from life to 60 years, with eligibility for parole after serving 20 years. This recommendation went to then-Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer.

But Roemer was facing a serious fight for the governor's office from David Duke--the Klansman turned Republican who won hundreds of thousands of votes in his campaigns for Louisiana governor and U.S. senator--and didn't want to be outflanked on the right. Despite receiving petitions with 12,000 signatures calling for Gary's pardon, Roemer rejected the board's recommendation. Roemer lost anyway to Duke, in a three-way race that was won by the notoriously corrupt former governor Edwin Edwards.

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FOR THE past three decades, Gary Tyler has been incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

The 18,000-acre facility, nicknamed "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 sent there will probably die behind bars.

Angola is built on a former slave plantation and has been running continuously since the end of the Civil War. To this day, slavery casts a long shadow over the Southern penal system, especially Louisiana's. The state has the highest incarceration rate in the country. Blacks make up 32 percent of Louisiana residents, but they are 72 percent of the state's prison population.

The life of prisoners inside 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 hour.

How is it possible, given all the evidence of his innocence and the blatantly racist nature of his frame-up, that Gary Tyler is still in prison?

Powerful political forces have conspired to keep him behind bars. Both racism and political persecution 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."

On top of this has been the tide of new legal restrictions on the rights of prisoners to appeal their conviction. Even though all of the major witnesses against Gary have recanted their testimony against him, this is not considered a legitimate basis for appeal.

However, the recent attention given to Gary's case by Times columnist Bob Herbert has provided an opportunity to renew a campaign to win his freedom. Gary Tyler is a political prisoner, and nothing less than a serious fight by those who are outraged and want to support him will get him free.

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