National efforts spanned years for release
Word spread nationally about Gary Tyler’s release after serving 41 years in prison for the 1974 shooting death of a 13-year-old Destrehan High School student during racial unrest in St. Charles Parish.
On Friday, Tyler pleaded guilty to manslaughter as part of a plea agreement in the decades old case and walked out of court a free man, closing a dark chapter in a racially explosive time in the parish’s history.
Tyler’s case had become one of the more high-profile ones from the South’s racial unrest and violence that arose from desegregation. Many considered his arrest and conviction unconstitutional and sought his release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, one of the state’s toughest prisons, where he had been incarcerated since he was 16 years old.
Until last Friday’s hearing before Judge Lauren Lemmon, Tyler had maintained his innocence but told Lemmon he wanted to accept responsibility for his role in the shooting.
Upon accepting his guilty plea for manslaughter that carried a maximum 21-year sentence, Lemmon said, “There are no winners in this case – none. I hope this brings some closure.”
Now, at age 57, Tyler is a free man.
The St. Rose man told Lemmon that he had tried to live a purposeful life.
“I am committed to living a meaningful and purposeful life outside of prison,” he said. “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.”
Tyler also 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.”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.
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.”
On Monday, V.J. St. Pierre, a deputy with the St. Charles Sheriff’s Office at the time of the shooting and cousin of the victim, said if this was acceptable to Weber’s parents then it was fine with him, too.
But St. Pierre added, “If you go to the cemetery and open the coffin, Timmy can’t get out. I just hope that what Tyler said at the hearing was true.”
Weber and Tyler’s encounter on Oct. 7, 1974 would become a devastating one.
Destrehan High School was let out early (then called Harry Hurst Middle School) when Tyler, along with an estimated 20 other African-American students were being bused off campus amid a mob of white students that reportedly shouted racial slurs, and threw rocks and bottles at the bus.
St. Pierre recounted the incident during his 2007 campaign for parish president.
“I remember a black hand holding a gun coming out of a school bus window,” he said. “It hit my cousin, Timothy, in the head. I held him in my arms, and myself and another deputy tried to get him to the hospital, but it was too late.”
Tyler was on the bus and found guilty as an adult for first-degree murder. But questions soon arose about the evidence in the case.
A second search of the bus revealed a Colt .45 pistol found in the fold of a seat supposedly where Tyler sat, which was connected to a Kenner shooting range used by the Sheriff’s Office at the time and reported stolen (it later went missing from evidence). The bus driver maintained the shot came from outside the bus. Black and white students who testified against Tyler later recanted and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals called his conviction unfair yet he was denied a new trial.
New York attorney George Kendall, who headed Tyler’s legal team, said he also hoped the agreement would help put the case to rest for Tyler and Weber’s family.
Asked to comment about Tyler, Kendall pointed to affidavits praising his efforts in prison.
Former Warden John Whitley recalled Tyler’s arrival to the prison in 1975, saying he watched him mature from “an angry 16-year-old without direction” to a “responsible, focused and productive adult.” Tyler became a trustee and was permitted to leave the prison grounds with the prison’s Drama Club for performances.
Former Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot recounted his leadership as head of the Drama Club where he “made that club into a kind of ministry, reaching out to inmates and getting them to express themselves in positive, life-affirming ways.” She adds, “I believe he has enormous potential to do great things and I know he has the ability to help others to become better people.”
Paul Boudreaux, executive director of Louisiana-Mississippi Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, who had known Tyler for nearly two decades, said he was one of the key people involved in the prison’s hospice program, as well as mentoring younger inmates.