Gary Tyler freed after 41 years of unconstitutional life sentence
Civil rights march: Gary Tyler’s case set off protests and inspired a song by UB40. Photo: freegarytyler.com
Fort Worth, Texas: A Louisiana man walked free from the notorious Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison late on Friday after serving 41 years of an unconstitutional life sentence for the shooting death of a white high school student during a violent and racially charged chapter in the state’s fight to segregate schools.
The high-profile case of Gary Tyler, 57, ended when he entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to 21 years – just over half of the time served – and told he could go home on Friday, according to a statement released on behalf of him and his attorneys.
Mr Tyler is among a generation of prisoners who faced harsh conditions and years or even decades in solitary confinement for convictions during racially charged events in Louisiana.
Anger: Gary Tyler’s case set off protests and inspired a song by UB40. Photo: freegarytyler.com
At the age of 16 in 1974, Mr Tyler, who is black, was the youngest person on Louisiana’s Death Row, where an all-white jury sent him to die for the slaying of 13-year-old Thomas Weber, a fellow Destrehan High School student in St Charles Parish in southern Louisiana.
Mr Tyler was on a bus filled with black students who were passing an unruly crowd of white students when Thomas was shot, the statement said. Police found a gun on the bus and Mr Tyler was charged with capital murder and tried as an adult.
After his death sentence, white students who testified against him recanted their stories. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals called his conviction fundamentally unfair and said he was never given his right to the presumption of innocence. But he never received a new trial.
US Band UB40 documented the injustice with Tyler, recorded for its debut album in 1980.
“Police gun was planted, no matching bullets
No prints on the handle, no proof to show
But Tyler is guilty the white judge has said so
They show him no mercy
They won’t let him go,” reads the chorus
In 1976, his death sentence was commuted to life after the state’s mandatory death penalty was ruled unconstitutional. In the following two decades, the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Paroles voted three times to lessen his sentence.
Still, Mr Tyler served eight years in solitary confinement and more than 30 years in the general population section where he became a mentor and a leader. His case drew national attention as an example of the unfair convictions and over-the-top sentencing and treatment of minorities in the Louisiana justice system at the time.
In 2007 Amnesty International renewed its call for a pardon to be granted and called the imprisonment a “serious miscarriage of justice”.
In 2012, life without parole for juvenile offenders was also ruled unconstitutional and, earlier this year, a court decided the ruling should be retroactive.
Angola is considered among the toughest of the state’s prisons. It was once a part of a Deep South plantation and known for seething racial tensions and harsh treatment of inmates.