At 16 years old, Gary Tyler was the youngest inmate sentenced to death row after being found guilty in the 1975 shooting death of Norco resident Timothy Weber. Thirty-eight years later he is incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola at the age of 54 after his original death sentence was overturned in favor of a mandatory life sentence in 1977.
Now, after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled mandatory life sentences for juveniles unconstitutional, Tyler may again be eligible for a reduction in his sentence.
Tylerís imprisonment stems from an incident that took place during a particularly troublesome time for St. Charles Parish - the early days of integration in the parishís public schools.
School was let out early from Destrehan High School, now Harry Hurst Middle School, on Oct. 7, 1974 right before Weber was shot. Tyler, along with around 20 other black students, was bussed out amidst a group of 200 whites who were reportedly shouting racial epithets and throwing rocks and bottles at the bus.
Patti Weber Waguespack, Weberís sister, recalled the scene that day.
"It was total chaos. They let the whole school dismiss at one time," Waguespack said. "I knew the people who lived across the street from the school and I called my mother to come get us, but they let the buses go and she couldnít get through. I was right there next to him when it happened."
A shot rang out.
Thirteen-year-old Timothy Weber crumpled to the ground.
Also standing next to Weber that day was Parish President V.J. St. Pierre, Weberís third cousin, who was a deputy at the time.
He recalled being at the scene during his 2007 campaign.
"I remember a black hand holding a gun coming out of a school bus window," he said.
St. Pierre said he was standing a few feet away when the shot was fired.
"It hit my cousin, Timothy, in the head," St. Pierre said. "I held him in my arms and myself and another deputy tried to get him to the hospital but it was too late."
Although the bus driver contended that the shot had come from outside the vehicle, deputies stormed the bus and did a comprehensive search that at first did not turn up a murder weapon.
Meanwhile, Tyler was detained by Deputy Nelson Coleman (namesake of the parishís prison) for disturbing the peace. When asked at trial whose peace Tyler had been disturbing, Coleman answered "mine."
After a second search of the bus, deputies found a Colt .45 pistol in a slit in the seat cover where Tyler had been sitting. That weapon was later linked to a shooting range where it had been reported stolen. The weapon later went missing from evidence.
Waguespack was right next to her brother when the shooting occurred. She said although she did not see Tyler fire the gun, she has no doubt he is responsible for the shooting.
"I feel like he should have got the death penalty," Waguespack said. "You take a personís life and they should take yours."
Similarly, the victimís mother, Leah Weber, said she was dismayed when Tylerís sentence was reduced the first time when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled mandatory death sentences for juveniles were unconstitutional. Now again Tyler looks to be eligible for a sentence reduction due to the high court.
"I didnít think that was possible again," Weber said. "What he did to my son was unconstitutional."
Tylerís sister, Willa Mae Wilmore, said she believes her brother is innocent.
"I believe that my brother did not do that," Wilmore said. "Heís always said that he is innocent–that he didnít do it. So I believe there was another shooter."
However, Wilmore said she understands how the Webers might feel.
"I can understand the family for wanting someone to pay for their sonís life. He was a young man and heís no longer here and he could have had a chance in life. Also, my brother, he may still be living, but he never had a life either," Wilmore said. "I donít think he just wants to get out. I think he wants to still prove that he is innocent."
Wilmore said although she is happy at the prospect that her brother may face a sentence reduction, she is concerned that in order to get that reduction Tyler will have to admit to committing the crime.
"I really think heíll stay in jail for the rest of his life before he admits that he did that if he didnít do it just to be free," Wilmore said.
Tyler has been recommended for a pardon by the Louisiana Board of Pardons three times, but has been denied each time.
During the first pardon board hearing five witnesses recanted their testimony and said they had been coerced by deputies to name Tyler as the shooter.
New York Times columnist Bob Herbert reported Larry Dabney, who was seated near Tyler on the bus, said he was intimidated and coached by deputies to name Tyler as the shooter.
Tylerís attorney George Kendall said he is looking into the matter further before speaking with members of the press.
"We have taken the position that we are not going to comment on this quite yet," Kendall said. "In the future there may be new opportunities, but for right now letís just leave it like that."
|Gary Tyler has been in the Louisiana State Penitentiary since 1975.|