Gary Tyler – Prisoner of Conscience (or “The Case of the Phantom Gun”)

13007255_258879657787457_9148301133465709029_nIt was October 7th, 1974 in St Rose, Louisiana, and 16-year-old Gary Tyler was catching the bus home from the recently integrated Destrehan High School, after it closed early due to tensions following a football game. The bus was filled with black children, and almost from the moment it set off, it was subjected to a barrage of missiles as it was surrounded by between 100 and 200 white students. Suddenly a loud pop was heard, the driver later claimed came from outside the bus, and a 13-year-old white student Timothy Weber was fatally wounded.
The driver climbed off the bus, but was asked to get back on board by the police who believed somebody aboard the bus was the perpetrator, where he was directed to drive over to a quiet area, and the pupils on board were searched and removed from the bus. The bus was then also subjected to a thorough search, again which turned up nothing. Both searches were witness by the driver.

After disembarking the bus, one of the students was quizzed by a black police officer in attendance, regarding the .22 calibre bullet he had hanging from a chain around his neck. Tyler, the lad’s cousin went to tell the officer that it was irrelevant to the proceedings and he also had a similar chain. The officer responded by arresting Tyler for breaching the peace. When asked later what peace he was breaching, the officer replied “Mine, he was breaching my peace.” Gary was taken to a local police station, where it was later revealed that he was a juvenile.

His mother was informed, whilst at work, about the occurrence, and that her son had been arrested. She went down to the police station but after hearing her son being beaten, was asked to return home. She was assured he would be released the following day. She was not allowed to see him. When he failed to arrive the next day she returned to the police station to find he had been charged with the murder of Timothy Weber.

It was claimed that a .45 calibre gun had been discovered between two seats on the bus, during the search. A claim which the driver vehemently denies to this day. He witnessed the search, he said. No gun was found. There was no gun. He maintains the shot was fired outside the bus. Later the .45 would be identified as a police issued weapon which had been stolen from a firing range, prior to the shooting. This claim however could not be either substantiated nor overruled in court, as the gun mysteriously vanished from the evidence locker as mysteriously as it turned up on the bus.

A green lawyer was hired for Tyler, Jack Williams, who had never defended a murder charge much less one that potentially carried the death penalty. He was also most unhappy about the small budget he was being paid to represent Tyler. He met only a few times with his client, and spoke only briefly to him. His advice being to admit guilt if he had been the perpetrator; which Tyler claimed not. It has not been confirmed in later sources whether Tyler was afforded the expected checks for evidence such as gunpowder residue on his hands, nor the gun fingerprinted prior to its disappearance before the trial.

However, it is known that there was no physical evidence tying Gary to the crime, so can presume if these checks were carried out, they came back negative. It is not stated if, how or when Gary was alleged to have stolen the gun from the shooting range, or when he received it from whoever did. It was not divulged at which point the gun was recorded as stolen, nor has any search recovered the “missing gun” in the last 42 years. Finally my sources do not indicate whether there was any ballistics match from the bullet that killed Timothy to the gun prior to its disappearance.

What is evident however is that by the time the case reached trial a year later, 17-year-old Tyler was going to be found guilty before he even went into the courthouse. An all-white jury was cast, and the Judge was later ruled to have made an improper charge to them on his opening statement. Tyler’s family were barred from the courtroom, and despite the statement of the bus-driver, and the four key witnesses claiming their statements had been gained through force and coercion, all of which were retracted, Tyler was tried as an adult, found guilty and sentenced to death by electric chair. He was later removed to notorious Angola Jail.

Despite several requests for a pardon for Gary Tyler, or for the case to be re-tried, he remains in jail. Each governor who has been approached to investigate and make the pardon has stalled the plan due to their own re-election priorities; basically they won’t touch the case for fear that it would cost them votes. It has been suggested that David Duke was behind the original tension, encouraging the white children to stir up racial tension with the black students, and that his bid for election in the state has forced the governors to remove themselves from the possibility of losing to him by distancing themselves from the plight of Gary Tyler. As such he has been hailed a political prisoner. A federal court ruling dismissed the trial as fundamentally flawed on several points, basically opening the door for a re-trial, which again has never materialized.

Luckily for Gary, the death penalty was ruled as unconstitutional in the state while he sat on death row awaiting his execution. His sentence was commuted to life without parole. Gary has no desire to stir trouble, make a fuss or claim any sort of recompense for his time served in prison, now 41 years. His mother, a staunch campaigner for her son’s freedom, and upstanding citizen of her neighbourhood, with ten other children, sadly passed away in 2012. Gary was allowed to visit her in her final days in hospital, for once without shackles and irons. It was such a surprise to Juanita, she asked quietly if he was free.

Louisiana State pardoned Anthony Mart after just ten years for shooting black stranger Richard Dunn, from a car window in cold blood, while he was walking home from a dance held to raise money for Gary’s defense all those years ago. Protest marches were held shortly after Gary’s conviction, and Civil Rights Activist Rosa Parks assisted on his case for some time as part of her work in gaining the freedom of political prisoners, and those incarcerated for acts of self-defense. Although unsuccessful in gaining similar pardon for Gary, before she passed away, Rosa did see him recognised as a “Prisoner of Conscience” by Amnesty International.

Gary Tyler feels his case is no longer about his innocence, he is being held in prison simply because Louisiana will be forced to admit they made a mistake by pardoning or releasing him. And that would mean admitting there was a racially motivated agenda in finding him guilty. Louisiana swore in a new State Governor – John Bel Edwards – on January 11th, 2016. Let’s see whether he gets on the case or gets a new Phoebe-flavoured English nickname…. meanwhile, now coming up 58 years of age, Gary remains in Angola, where he has always been a quiet, well-behaved inmate.

Phoebe.