After serving 41 years in prison for the 1974 shooting death of Timothy Weber, Gary Tyler of St. Rose pleaded guilty to manslaughter as part of a plea agreement in the decades old case and walked out of court today (April 29) a free man.
Until the hearing before Judge Lauren Lemmon, Tyler had maintained his innocence but told Lemmon he wanted to accept responsibility for his role in the shooting of the 13-year-old Norco resident.
“I have been incarcerated since I was 16 years old. I am now 57 years old,” Tyler said in a statement to Lemmon. “While in prison, I tried my best to live a purposeful life and to become a responsible and caring adult. I am committed to living a meaningful and purposeful life outside of prison. I hope that I will be able to help others to find the way to peaceful resolution of conflict and to show compassion for each other, for the benefit of our community, our families and the world in which we live.”
St. Charles Parish District Attorney Joel Chaisson II said Weber’s parents did not want to attend the hearing, but concurred with his plea deal.
Chaisson said the plea agreement was based on the following factors: Tyler’s willingness for the first time in more than 41 years to admit responsibility for Weber’s death; federal court finding the jury’s original guilty determination was “fundamentally unfair;” the Louisiana Parole Board voting three times to reform Tyler’s sentence from a life sentence to a term of years so he could be released from prison; Tyler’s positive accomplishments while incarcerated and Weber’s parents’ acceptance and understanding in the case that this was a reasonable resolution in the case.
At a time when the parish was embroiled in racial tension over desegregation on the Destrehan High School campus. On Oct. 7, 1974, a threatening white mob of students surrounded a bus filled with black students and among them was Tyler. As hostilities escalated, witnesses say a gun shot was heard and Weber, only 13 years old, was shot. Tyler, who was arrested and charged as an adult, was convicted of the homicide in 1975, and sentenced to death, making him the youngest person on death row at the time at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.
National protests and efforts were initiated to free Tyler, particularly in a case where evidence went missing and witnesses later recanted their testimony about Tyler. His conviction came under question when the Colt. 45 pistol that he allegedly used in the shooting was not found until a second search of the bus and was linked to a shooting range used by the Sheriff’s Office for target practice at the time. When the weapon was later called in as evidence in his appeals, the Sheriff’s Office said it was missing. Tyler remained imprisoned even after the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals called his conviction unfair.
Despite coming up for parole three times on good behavior, he was denied freedom.
Tyler’s death sentence was later overturned and a life sentence imposed.
In June 2013, Tyler filed a motion based on the 2012 Miller vs. Alabama decision that held mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders violated the U.S. Constitution. The 2016 Montgomery vs. Louisiana decision held that its holding Miller must be applied retroactively that required all juveniles with this life sentence to either be re-sentenced or considered for parole.
The plea agreement resolved the issues that were raised by the holdings in these two cases without requiring appellate reviews and/or pardon board hearings, which according to Chaisson, the Weber family sought to avoid.
Lemmon asked Tyler, “How do you plea?”
“Guilty,” he replied.
Lemmon accepted his plea and sentenced him to the maximum 21-year sentence for manslaughter.
“You should be released today with credit for time served,” she said. “There are no winners in this case – none,” Lemmon said. “I hope this brings some closure. The best of luck to you.”
Having served 41 years (two of them on death row), Tyler left court on Friday a free man.
Tyler expressed to the Weber family that he was “truly sorry for their loss and pain. I accept responsibility for my role in this.” He also asked for prayers for the Weber family, “and for healing in the days and weeks to come.”
Chaisson praised Weber’s parents “for their determination to seek justice for their son, for their endurance in the face of years of protracted legal battles in this case, and for their acceptance and understanding that a resolution wherein this matter is finally resolved with a guilty plea is in society’s best interest.”