Amnesty International believes that Gary Tyler was denied a fair trial and that racial prejudice played a major part in his prosecution.—Amnesty International, 1994
Every so often I find my attention being ineluctably drawn to a case of injustice so outrageous I almost can’t stand it. The best thing I know to counteract my anger is to spread the word—so, fellow bloggers, listen up.
In 1975 Gary Tyler was a 16-year-old Louisiana high school kid when an all-white jury sentenced him to death at a trial from which his mother was barred. At one time the youngest person on death row, he turned 48 this July; he was spared the electric chair when the Louisiana death penalty was ruled unconstitutional. Tyler has spent the past 32 years in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison.
What did Gary Tyler do to deserve a death sentence? He was accused of shooting another kid to death—but from the sound of things, he’s innocent. This morning on Democracy NOW, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert appeared, along with Tyler’s mother and sister, to tell the story. It goes like this:
In 1954, the Supreme Court forced schools in the South—and all the United States—to integrate. One ploy used to resist obeying the law was busing: kids were hauled from one neighborhood or town or county to another—primarily black kids went to white schools in white neighborhoods, where they often encountered racist mobs. At the time of Tyler’s arrest, protests against busing had become increasingly violent.
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.—Amnesty International
Gary Tyler was on a bus with 65 Black students when it was besieged by a mob of 200 white students throwing rocks, bottles, and screaming racist epithets. 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, believing that someone was shooting at them. Outside the bus, Timothy Weber fell to the ground, wounded. He later died.
The police stopped the bus, ordered all the Black kids off and searched them and the bus, but didn’t find a gun. One kid was pulled aside merely for wearing a bullet on a chain around his neck—apparently the cool fashion of the day. Tyler, similarly adorned, stood up for his friend by pointing out his own “necklace,” and was arrested for “disturbing the peace.” Further details of Tyler’s arrest and blatantly unfair trial can be found at www.freegarytyler.com. These involve planted evidence, coerced testimony, faked test results, a biased judge, and an inept defense attorney.
So many years later it’s hard to know for certain what actually occurred—but anyone with the briefest knowledge of southern justice during the civil rights era knows Tyler’s story has the ring of authenticity. I can name a litany of almost identical stories of injustice: the Scottsboro Boys, Emmett Till, Hurricane Carter, Geronimo Pratt, Leonard Peltier, and Assata Shakur, to name just a few. So similar are the stories that any of their names can be effectively slipped into Bob Dylan’s song about Rubin Hurricane Carter:
Now all the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell.
That’s the story of Hurricane,
But it won’t be over till they clear his name
And give him back the time he’s done…