Gary Tyler, wrongfully convicted of first degree murder, speaks at UWL – The Racquet Press
Gary Tyler was 16 when he was wrongfully convicted of first degree murder, sentenced to death and sent to Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary. On Tuesday, September 14, Tyler gave a presentation to a full auditorium at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Tyler has wrongly described him over 41 years of imprisonment and touched on topics such as racism, rehab programs for convicts, as well as what it was like to be on death row.
Tyler was introduced by Black Student Unity (BSU) Vice President Jaiya Edwards, as well as Nicholas Bakken, professor in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice. The conference and the questions and answers that followed were also co-sponsored by the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities; the Diversity and Inclusion Division; Leadership programs for multicultural student organizations; and the Office of Multicultural Student Services.
The audience, consisting mostly of students, but also faculty, staff and community members, sat in silence as Tyler described the events leading up to his incarceration. According to a 2007 New York Times editorial, “Mr. Tyler, a sophomore at Destrehan High, was on a bus full of black students which was attacked on October 7, 1974 by a white mob enraged by the integration. school. A shot was fired and a 13-year-old white boy standing outside the bus collapsed, fatally injured. Mr Tyler was arrested on a public disorder charge after responding to the sheriff’s deputy.
Although the bus and its passengers were searched and no weapons were found, Mr. Tyler was arrested, brutally beaten and charged with committing the murder. A gun was found during a subsequent search of the bus and witnesses were assembled to testify against Mr. Tyler. As it turned out, the gun (which has since disappeared) was stolen from a shooting range used by agents from the Sheriff’s Department. Any witnesses who identified Mr. Tyler would eventually retract, saying they had been terrified and pressured to testify falsely by authorities.
Tyler remembers having hope, even after being baselessly accused and physically beaten by authorities. “After everything I went through, I still believed in the criminal justice system. I was taught to believe the criminal justice system was the best system in the world, which I needed to believe. My mother, my parents believed in it. The truth will come out, you will be exonerated. I believed it. When I went to court, I was sure they would find me not guilty. ”
Despite protests from his family and community, Tyler was sentenced. According to the Free Gary Tyler website, “Gary’s trial lasted five days and jury deliberations three hours before he was convicted of first degree murder in November 1975. Under Louisiana law to at the time, it was an automatic death sentence. His execution date was set for May 1, 1976. At seventeen, he was the youngest on death row in the United States.
With Free Gary Tyler’s campaigns active across the country and multiple appeals pending, Tyler’s execution date has been postponed. Shortly thereafter, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty in Louisiana was unconstitutional and Tyler was spared death, but was again sentenced to life in prison. The requests for parole, pardon or commutation of sentences were all rejected.
Tyler weighed just 107 pounds and was 4’7 “at the time of his sentencing. He recalls being woken up by screaming during the first 72 hours in jail, looking out the window to see a prisoner engulfed in flames, set on fire by another prisoner.
Tyler was surrounded by convicted criminals. “I didn’t know the men around me had my best interests at heart. When I entered this prison, they did not see me as a threat. How could a little child – young enough to be your son, your little brother, your nephew, your friend’s son – come to prison with grown men? ”
He then described how he was framed and protected by some of these criminals, saying they took him under their wing and taught him how to survive. “The same ones protected me and became my guardians, raised someone else’s child and made sure that he did not become a victim. They became my big brothers, uncles, mentors, everything.
Tyler finally saw a drastic change in his fellow inmates, remembering people who once hated him because of the color of his skin who learned to love him and “became my best friends.”
Throughout his time in prison, Tyler continued his education. He was initially denied an application for a GED on the basis of his life sentence and told him that “it would be a waste of taxpayers’ money.” Tyler ended up reading every book he could get, joining clubs and organizations in prison, and taking every class or rehabilitation program available. He became certified in CPR, engaged in grief counseling training, studied graphic arts and printing, and attended paralegal school. He volunteered in the prison hospice facility for seventeen years. Most notably, he became the president of the theater club. Tyler credits the theater club with the power to use his voice, direct and inspire. Eventually, Tyler became well known for his ability to rehabilitate and inspire prisoners who had previously given up hope. “They grew up loving me just as I grew up loving them.”
According to the Free Gary Tyler website, “After enduring more than four decades of incarceration, the St. Charles Parish Attorney’s Office in Louisiana finally agreed to overturn Tyler’s conviction in 2016.
Tyler agreed to plead guilty to manslaughter and received a maximum sentence of 21 years. As he had already served that sentence more than twice, his sentence was quashed. Tyler was quietly released from Angola Penitentiary on April 29, 2016. ”
Tyler said, “We are transforming every day of our lives… I believe in change. Tyler is a proponent of convict rehabilitation, saying, “There are people who commit criminal acts, and there are people who have a propensity to commit criminal acts. You have to make that distinction … you have to ask if this person can be reformed or rehabilitated.
For more information on Gary Tyler’s life before and after prison, readers can visit https://www.freegarytyler.com/.