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Vol. 71/No. 11      March 19, 2007

Gary Tyler, framed up in 1974
desegregation fight, still in jail
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, Louisiana.

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 seat.

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.  
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