20 May 2016
Victim of Racist Frame-Up
Gary Tyler Finally Freed
(Class-Struggle Defense Notes)
On April 29, Gary Tyler, who had been framed up on bogus murder charges, was finally released from the notorious Angola prison hell that had been his home for over 40 years, eight of them in solitary. In the fall of 1974, Tyler was one of dozens of black students confronted by a vicious racist backlash in newly desegregated Destrehan High School. Such scenes played out not merely in the Deep South of Tyler’s Louisiana but across the country, including in the Northern liberal city of Boston. With racist animosity fever hot, on 4 October 1974, school officials canceled classes. Tyler and his black schoolmates were hustled into a school bus, which was then pelted with rocks and bottles by a KKK-organized mob of over a hundred. A shot rang out striking Timothy Weber, a 13-year-old white student, who later died at the hospital.
Despite the fact that a man with a rifle was on the scene and the driver of the bus assured the cops that no shots came from within, the black students were searched at gunpoint. When Tyler intervened to stop a deputy from harassing his cousin, he was arrested for “disturbing the peace,” and hauled off to the sheriff’s office where he was brutally beaten. The cops promised that if he confessed to the shooting, he would merely be sent “to Scotland” for a few years, but Tyler insisted on his innocence and was charged with murder.
Police uncovered no weapon in the bus after two separate searches over three hours. A subsequent “search” lasting a bare few minutes purportedly revealed a .45 calibre pistol stuffed in Tyler’s seat. That gun never made it to trial, having “disappeared” after ballistics tests showed that the bullet that struck Weber was a .22 calibre. It was later revealed that the .45 had been stolen from a firing range used by the sheriff’s department. All of the witnesses who testified against Tyler later recanted, saying they were terrorized into testifying. Tyler’s classmate Larry Dabney stated, “The deputies didn’t even ask me what I saw. They told me flat out I was going to be their key witness,” adding that he was told to “sign the statement they put together for me or I was going to jail for ten years.”
The state barred Tyler’s family from the courtroom. His attorney, who had never tried a criminal case, spent only an hour with Tyler preparing the defense. The trial judge instructed the all-white jury to presume that Tyler was guilty. Convicted at the age of 17, Gary Tyler became the youngest person sentenced to death in the U.S. Two years later, the U.S. Supreme Court declared Louisiana’s death penalty statute unconstitutional, and Tyler’s sentence was commuted to life without parole. Tyler’s cause was taken up by thousands. At its 1976 convention, the American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution supporting Tyler. Songs by Gil Scott Heron and UB40 called for his release.
The pain of Tyler’s decades of incarceration was made worse by the tantalizing whiff of freedom that came with appellate court acknowledgment that he should never have been convicted and with parole board recommendations for his release—only to be kept behind bars. In 1980, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ordered a new trial, declaring that Tyler had been convicted on the basis of the judge’s unconstitutional charge to the jury and that his trial was “fundamentally unfair.” One year later, the court reversed itself on the technicality that Tyler’s attorney had failed to object to the jury instructions at the trial. On three occasions, the Louisiana Board of Pardons recommended a reduction of his sentence, which would have allowed release after 20 years, but each time the governor turned him down.
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled that its 2012 decision that mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles were unconstitutional could be applied retroactively. To avoid protracted litigation, the state of Louisiana agreed to reduce Tyler’s sentence to 21 years—less than half of his time served—if he pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Without acknowledging firing the fatal bullet, Tyler accepted the plea deal.
The Free Gary Tyler Committee has called for donations to help his transition to life outside prison to be made payable/sent to: Liberty Hill Foundation, 6420 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 700, Los Angeles, CA 90048.
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(reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 1090, 20 May 2016)
Workers Vanguard is the newspaper of the Spartacist League with which the Partisan Defense Committee is affiliated.