Sentenced to death at age 17, Gary Tyler is building a new life in Venice
Story by Shirley Hawkins
Photos by Ted Soqui
Gary Tyler is finally at peace. The tranquil Craftsman homes and lush tree-lined streets of Pasadena are a far cry from the grim, gray walls of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, infamously known as Angola, the worst and bloodiest prison in the nation.
Tyler, 58, was incarcerated there for 41-and-a-half years for a crime he did not commit, arriving on death row before his 18th birthday.
“I feel free here,” says the soft-spoken Tyler, who now lives in a small, picturesque guest house where he frequently hosts local doctors, lawyers and activists — several of his longtime supporters.
“I can wake up in the morning and hear the birds chirping, smell the fresh air and feel the fresh breeze,” he says. “I enjoy the simple things — walking, talking to people, reading newspapers, learning how to drive and the fact that I can go anywhere without needing anyone’s permission.”
Despite having so much taken from him, Tyler spends much of his time giving back. Several times a week Tyler rides the Expo Line on the way to his job as an outreach and engagement support worker at Safe Place for Youth in Venice, where he helps homeless youth get off the streets.
“I see the potential in the kids who come from dysfunctional backgrounds. Even though they might be runaways, homeless or doing drugs, I tell them they are salvageable and that they still have potential,” Tyler says of his work. “I tell them to take advantage of all the opportunities that life affords them.
A CHILD SENTENCED TO DEATH
Tyler’s nightmare began at age 16, when he was charged with murder, hastily convicted and, at 17, became the youngest inmate in American history to be incarcerated on death row.
This was 1974, when public schools across America were still undergoing desegregation. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court had decided Brown v. Board of Education 20 years earlier, racial tensions flared at Destrehan High School in St. Charles Parish, La.
Tyler was sitting on a bus with other African-American students when a crowd of about 200 white students began yelling racial slurs and throwing rocks and bottles at them. A gunshot rang out above the clamor and the bullet struck 13-year-old Timothy Weber, a white classmate who later died at the local hospital.
During the turmoil, Tyler witnessed his cousin being harassed by sheriff’s deputies and spoke up in his defense. They subsequently arrested Tyler and initially charged him with disturbing the peace and interfering with an officer’s duties.
“I was known for being outspoken,” says Tyler.
Investigators searched the bus for several hours but did not find a weapon, then transported the students to the substation to search it once again. This time, they reported finding a gun: a government-issue 45-caliber Colt automatic. Police would produce the gun as evidence at Tyler’s trial. Later, it was discovered that the weapon was identified as having been stolen from the sheriff’s firing range in Jefferson Parish, 10 miles away. The gun later disappeared from the evidence room.
Inside the sheriff’s substation, police cursed at Tyler and threatened him.
“They kept asking me questions about what happened on the bus,” Tyler remembers. “When I said I didn’t know anything, six or seven police officers brutally beat me for two or three hours in the booking room at the substation.”
Tyler’s mother arrived hoping to take her son home and was horrified when she heard his muffled screams. He was tried by an all-white jury and sentenced to death by electric chair.
“I told them I was innocent, but no one listened,” says Tyler, his voice tinged by sadness at the memory of it.
A TEST OF SURVIVAL
Tyler still recalls the sense of fear he felt as the steel gate on his prison cell clanged shut.
“When the prison gates shut behind me, I felt as if I was shut off from the rest of the world,” he says. “You knew you would not exit those gates once they were closed.”
While languishing on death row for the next two years, Tyler wrote letters pleading for help and support from every media outlet he could think of, and eventually his case became national news. In 1976, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana’s mandatory death penalty was unconstitutional, and Tyler’s sentence was reduced to life in prison.
Tyler describes day-to-day life in Angola as a test of sheer survival.
“Angola was the bloodiest, most infamous prison in the nation,” he says. “It was a place of turmoil where prisoners were killing each other and committing suicide. I saw horrible things— inmates being set on fire or stabbed with homemade spears. I saw inmates who were doused with acid by other inmates. Some prisoners even got beaten to death by guards.”
But Tyler did not have to face this without help. A group of inmates formed a bond to protect the vulnerable, frightened teen.
“They saw a little kid who was all alone,” Tyler recalls. “Many of them were uncles and fathers, and they stepped up as responsible men to make sure that nothing happened to me.”
Tyler went on to become a model prisoner, obtaining his GED, studying graphic arts and printing, and even attending paralegal school. He mentored other inmates and spent 17 years as a volunteer in the prison’s hospice care facility.
But it was an invitation to join Angola’s Drama Club that radically changed his life. For the next 20 years, Tyler headed that club, which led to him directing the passion play “The Life of Jesus Christ.” Impressed with the production, directors Jonathan Stack and Nicholas Cuellar filmed a documentary about the project titled “Cast the First Stone.”
TROUBLING FROM THE START
Tyler’s case, which was widely publicized off and on for four decades, continued to gather a groundswell of support from athletes, left-wing activists and celebrities of the times, such as the British reggae band UB40 and the Neville Brothers. Rallies eventually sprung up across the country and abroad to protest Tyler’s wrongful incarceration.
“I received cards and letters on a daily basis from people from all over the world,” recalls Tyler. “They told me to keep holding on and to continue to be strong.”
On the first appeal of Tyler’s conviction in 1981, a federal appeals court found that Tyler had been “denied a fundamentally fair trial” but refused to order a new one for him. And despite the Louisiana Board of Pardons recommending three times that Tyler be released due to his positive work in prison, several Louisiana governors refused to act on his case.
When the board recommended a pardon for Tyler in 1989, then-Republican Gov. Charles “Buddy” Roemer denied Tyler a pardon not once, but twice. Roemer was running for reelection against Ku Klux Klansman David Duke and refused to consider Tyler’s case in a racially charged election, avoiding the risk of political blowback by white voters.
“In a news release, Roemer said that since I didn’t have my GED yet, I wouldn’t be able make it in society,” Tyler says. “After I obtained my GED, Roemer still denied me a pardon.”
All this time in faraway Los Angeles, Tyler had an advocate in Bob Zaugh, a member of the progressive media collective known as Peace Press, which operated from 1967 to 1987. Zaugh’s dedication to Tyler’s case outlived Peace Press, and it was Zaugh who later found Tyler his home in Pasadena and a job in Venice.
“They would not let Gary out,” says Zaugh. “When Gov. Kathleen Blanco was leaving office [in 2008], we appealed to her, but she ultimately ignored his case.”
Undeterred, a battery of impassioned attorneys — Mary Howell, Majeeda Sneed, George Kendall, Pamela Bayer, Corinne Irish and Sam Dalton, among others — worked for decades to exonerate Tyler.
“The case itself was a clear miscarriage of justice,” says Howell, who worked on Tyler’s case from 1977 to his release. “The 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that Gary was denied the presumption of innocence and had a fundamentally unfair trial, yet refused to give him a new trial. The case was permeated with racial issues and deeply troubling from the beginning.”
AND FINALLY, FREEDOM
In all, Tyler endured more than four decades of incarceration before the St. Charles Parish District Attorney’s Office finally agreed to overturn Tyler’s life sentence last year. Tyler agreed to enter a guilty plea for manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of 21 years. Because Tyler had already served more than twice that sentence, authorities quietly released him from Angola on April 29, 2016.
Angola Prison Warden Darrell Vannoy reportedly wept while escorting Tyler to the prison gates.
“He told me that we had grown up in prison together and considered me a real friend,” Tyler recalls. He said, ‘Enjoy your life, Gary.’”
Zaugh also speaks highly of his friend.
“I have no doubt that Gary will be a positive force and resource in the community,” he says. “He is one of the kindest, most polite, most engaging people I’ve ever met.”
For his part, Tyler is simply taking life one day at a time. He’s still figuring out how to use all the features on his smartphone — a “complicated and challenging” device he had no exposure to in prison — but he’s OK with that.
“Every day I wake up, I feel blessed that I’ve been given the opportunity to finally live a life of freedom,” he says.
Gary Tyler and Bob Zaugh will be at Arena 1 Gallery (3026 Airport Ave., Santa Monica) on Saturday, July 1, to discuss “The Art of the Cooks of Peace Press,” a retrospective of the group’s work that includes a room dedicated to Tyler’s case. Call (310) 397-7456 or visit arena1gallery.com.
The Liberty Hill Foundation is taking contributions in support of Tyler at libertyhill.org/form/back-to-life-re-entry-fund.