Gary Tyler today.
Last week I heard the news that Gary Tyler had been freed from a Louisiana prison after serving 41 years.
I nearly cried. Somewhere in a box of photos is a picture of a very young man knocking on doors on Chicago’s south side collecting signatures on a petition to free a sixteen year-old African American kid from death row.
I couldn’t find the picture. The young man was me.
I’m not a young man anymore.
And Gary Tyler is a long time from sixteen years-old.
Yesterday I received this email:
We’re sending this letter mostly to a group of long-time friends — people who will recognize the name “Gary Tyler”, and recall the “Free Gary Tyler” campaign in which we were all involved in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Freedom and justice for Gary was a cause we embraced for several years, long ago. We were activists on his behalf. For many of us, it was a shock to learn recently that Gary Tyler has remained in prison for 41+ years! — notwithstanding his innocence — notwithstanding that the 5th Circuit deemed his trial “fundamentally unfair” — notwithstanding that the Pardon Board three times recommended he be pardoned. We moved on, yet Gary was seemingly unable to move on with his own life. (And yet, of course, he did — against all odds! More on that later.)
Until now! A recent Supreme Court decision declared Gary’s life sentence unconstitutional. The Parish district attorney agreed to vacate his conviction if Gary would plead guilty to manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 21 years. Gary agreed. After 41 years in prison, Gary walked out a free man on Friday, April 29! Gary, who entered prison at age 16 under threat of the death penalty, is finally a free man at the age of 57! Can you imagine what that will be like for him?! Free at last, yes, but building a life from scratch as you approach 60 years old?
There are far too many painful stories of innocent prisoners — mostly African-American — freed after decades in prison. For Gary, there are allies who have been planning for this day for many years — lawyers and other supporters working on his behalf to ensure his smooth re-integration into the outside world — lining up jobs and other services. The plan is for Gary to leave Louisiana and settle in Los Angeles, where he has some family and a dedicated support network.
This is where we all come in! A range of job possibilities have been lined up in LA, plus some initial housing and other services. But we need to think of the longer-term as well. A Fund has been established under the auspices of the Liberty Hill Foundation to channel financial support to Gary for housing, health care, clothing, insurance, transportation, and the myriad other financial needs he will face initially and over the next few years as he builds a life having spent his entire adult life — 41 years — behind bars.
The Fund opened with $7,000; our goal is to raise $60,000. Money can’t right the enormous injustice done to Gary Tyler, but perhaps we can ease his road back to freedom.
Contributions to this Fund are tax-deductible. We hope you will give generously! (See box, below.)
A little more on Gary: Gary is a pretty amazing man — a really lovely man. A couple of years ago, a few of us had an opportunity to meet Gary and talk to him at length. Yes, of course he wanted out of prison, but in the meantime he consciously eschewed bitterness and made more of his life than many people on the outside. Angola Prison has some very unique programs, and Gary worked hard to positively impact the lives of others.
He was a founder and long-time volunteer in the hospice program (featured in the Oprah Winfrey/Forest Whitaker documentary Serving Life, and the subject of a book Grace Before Dying), served as mentor to younger prisoners, was long-time president of the Drama Club (written up in the N.Y. Times, and the subject of a film documentary), etc. He’s a good man, doing good work, and touching many lives. He’s warm and funny and smart. It was an honor to meet him and begin to know him — as a person, not a cause. (We were all on the right side of this “cause”! — we can be proud of that.) Now we need to help him in his transition.
Please help to support Gary Tyler now! Give as generously as you can! And please share this letter with a wide network to garner broad support!
Bob Zaugh, Los Angeles
Pam & Steve White, Los Angeles
Barry & Paula Litt, Los Angeles
Elizabeth Stanley, Los Angeles
Jim & Janet Fennerty, Chicago
Amy Gladstein & Jim Reif, Brooklyn, NY
Holly & Will Hazleton, Atlanta
Bob & Joan Anyon, San Francisco
Karen Jo Koonan, San Francisco
Robert Perrone, Sacramento, CA
George H. Kendall, New York
Mary Joyce Carlson, Washington, DC
P.S. For those of you needing a brief recap of the facts of Gary’s case, we’ve provided this addendum. (The “Free Gary Tyler” site freegarytyler.com contains several articles. op-eds from the N.Y. Times, and a “Democracy Now” show about Gary.):
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More about Gary’s Case
At age 16, in 1974, Gary Tyler was on a school bus with other African-American kids in rural Louisiana, involved in the integration of an all-white school. The bus was surrounded by 100-200 angry whites shouting, throwing rocks and bottles. A shot was fired from somewhere and a young white boy was mortally wounded. All black kids from the bus were searched and taken to the police station. No one in the white crowd was searched. (The bus driver and the kids on the bus maintain that the shot was fired from the crowd, toward the bus.)
The bus was searched for three hours and no gun was found. Gary (who had lived briefly in Los Angeles before returning home to Louisiana) mouthed-off a bit to the cops,
telling them that the bullet-on-a-chain around his cousin’s neck meant nothing and had nothing to do with this situation.
This “sass” apparently caused the cops to zero in on him. Attempting to extract a confession , the police beat Gary mercilessly for several hours, but he never confessed. (He continued to maintain his innocence for 41years. The recent plea deal which gained his freedom required a guilty plea to manslaughter.) He was charged with murder, tried, convicted and sentenced to death within a year.
Though no gun was found in the 3-hour search of the bus, the police later produced a gun they said was the murder weapon. It had no fingerprints. It was a gov’t-issue weapon that had disappeared from a shooting range used by the local sheriffs, and it subsequently disappeared from evidence. A few kids from the bus testified against Gary. They all later recanted their testimony and described how they had been terrorized by the police, told exactly what to say, and threatened with prison themselves if they failed to implicate Gary.
The judge instructed the jury that they could presume Gary had intended to inflict deadly harm — guilty until proven innocent, essentially. Gary was sentenced to death — the youngest person on death row in the country. He was spared the electric chair when Louisiana’s death penalty was declared unconstitutional; his sentence was commuted to life in prison. No evidence, no witnesses, but 41 years later, he was still imprisoned, until now.
Gary lived at Angola State Penitentiary — the largest maximum security prison in the country. Of the more than 5000 inmates, something like 75% are black, the average sentence is 93 years, and most men will die there — there is little hope for release. As we mentioned, Gary was three times recommended for pardon by the Pardon Board, but each time the sitting governor failed to sign. The 5th Circuit also ordered a new trial based on “fundamental unfairness” — but the state of Louisiana declined a new trial on a technicality.
Until 4/29, Gary had for many years lived a medium-security life within a maximum security prison. He lived in an honor dorm, could walk around freely, and was able to leave the prison from time to time on “honor” jobs. The Drama Club, under his leadership, left the prison grounds for widely-praised performances in schools and churches around the state. Gary’s pardon applications over the years were supported by the Warden and other prison personnel; in the final hearing resulting in his release, his Petition was supported by strong affidavits from a former Warden and Assistant Warden, among others.
Gary didn’t belong in prison — ever!. Let’s support his transition back to life on the outside!