Gary Tyler was just 16 years old when he was charged with shooting a white student in 1974. He was sentenced to death by an all-white jury and spent nearly 42 years in Louisiana's notorious Angola Prison before his release this weekend.
On October 7, 1974, Gary Tyler, a sophomore at Destrehan High School in St. Charles Parish, was on a bus with other black students when the bus was attacked by a segregationist mob of 100 to 200 white students and adults. Members of the crowd yelled racial slurs and threw bottles and rocks at the bus, and someone fired a shot that hit and killed 13-year-old Timothy Weber.
Sheriff's deputies searched the bus and the students on board, but found no weapon. Gary spoke up to a deputy and was arrested for disturbing the peace, beaten while in custody, and charged with murder. Law enforcement claimed they then found, on one of the bus seats, a large pistol that had been taken from a firing range used by sheriff's deputies; the gun has since disappeared. Witnesses who testified against Mr. Tyler at trial later recanted, revealing that police had used threats to force them to testify falsely.
Mr. Tyler's death sentence was converted to life imprisonment without parole after Louisiana's mandatory death penalty was struck down. In 1981, a federal appeals court found that his conviction was unconstitutional but denied him a new trial. He remained at Angola, the nation's most violent prison, and was held in solitary confinement for eight years. Mr. Tyler emerged as a mentor and leader whom the Louisiana Pardon Board recommended for a pardon three times.
Activists for racial justice coalesced around Mr. Tyler's case and have long advocated for his release. In 1976, Rosa Parks spoke at a rally in support of Mr. Tyler. "If there is any strength that I have left," she said, "I will do whatever I can to help free this young brother."
In 2012, EJI won a ruling from the United States Supreme Court striking down mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles in Miller v. Alabama. The State of Louisiana refused to apply the ruling to people who were sentenced before the court's decision, but in January, the Supreme Court ruled that Miller is retroactive.
Mr. Tyler, now 57, entered a guilty plea on Friday and was sentenced to 21 years. He was released that afternoon.
"It is long past time for Gary Tyler to come home," Mr. Tyler's defense team, headed by attorney George H. Kendall, said in a statement. "Hopefully this agreement will help to put this case to rest for Gary, the loved ones of Tim Weber and St. Charles Parish."