joined The New York Times as an op-ed columnist in 1993. He is the author of the book Promises Betrayed: Waking Up from the American Dream, a collection of his columns from 1995 to 2004.
mother of Gary Tyler.
Gary Tyler’s sister.
The case of Louisiana’s Gary Tyler has been called one of the great miscarriages of justice in the modern history of the United States. Tyler, an African American, has been jailed since he was 16 years old for a 1974 murder that many believe he did not commit. An all-white jury convicted him based entirely on the statements of four witnesses who later recanted their testimony. We speak with Tyler’s mother, Juanita, and his sister, Bobbie McCray. We’re also joined by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who has been covering Tyler’s case. And we hear Tyler in his own words in an unaired interview from prison. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Amnesty International has renewed its call for Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to pardon Gary Tyler, who is serving a life sentence without parole in the Angola prison. He has been in jail since he was 16 years old for a crime that many believe he did not commit. The pardon board has ruled in his favor three times.
On October 7, 1974, a white mob, enraged over school integration, attacked a school bus filled with black students in Destrehan, Louisiana. In the frenzy, a 13-year-old white student named Timothy Weber was shot dead. Gary Tyler was one of the black students aboard that bus. He was arrested and then tried by an all-white jury. The case against him rested on the statements of four witnesses, all of whom have since recanted. Within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to death by electric chair. He became the youngest person on death row in the country. Tyler escaped electrocution only because the Supreme Court declared Louisiana’s death penalty unconstitutional.
AMY GOODMAN: For the past 32 years, Gary Tyler has always maintained his innocence. In 1981, a federal appeals court ruled Tyler was, quote, "denied a fundamentally fair trial." Even Louisiana’s own board of pardons has issued rulings on three occasions that would have allowed Tyler to be freed. But Tyler remains behind bars. His case has been called one of the great miscarriages of justice in the modern history of the United States.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Bob Herbert of the New York Times and a former colleague of mine at the Daily News recently wrote a series of columns on Gary Tyler that has sparked renewed interest in the 32-year-old case. Bob Herbert joins us in our firehouse studio now.
BOB HERBERT: Juan, Amy, how are you?
AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to be with you.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Welcome, Bob. Could you lay out for us some key aspects of this case?
BOB HERBERT: Well, I think the first important thing to keep in mind is that the black kids on this school bus were the victims, as this story began to unfold. The bus was being attacked by an enraged mob of whites who were upset over school integration. When the shot rang out, the kids on the bus dove for the floor to take cover. They assumed somebody was shooting at them. The bus driver, who’s a neutral person in this issue, has always maintained that someone outside the bus fired the weapon. But when this young white boy fell over, Timothy Weber — excuse me — 13 years old, mortally wounded, the rage just got out of control. And the assumption in the mob, and I guess among law enforcement, too, was that it had to have been a black person who fired the shot.
Interestingly enough, Gary Tyler wasn’t a suspect at first. He is taken off the bus, and all the kids are searched. All the kids on the bus were searched. The bus was searched. None of the people in the crowd were searched. But the sheriff’s deputies were talking to Gary Tyler’s cousin, who was also on the bus, and asked him about something that was hanging from his neck. And Gary Tyler said to one of the deputies, "That has nothing to do with anything." He made a smart remark to the deputy. I believe that that’s what led the deputies to target him.
The word came back that Timothy Weber had died, and the crowd went out of control. Deputies took Gary Tyler in, and they beat him — and I believe this to be true, because there’s a lot of witnesses to this — they beat him unmercifully, trying to get him to confess. But he never confessed.
You mention that in a little over a year, this whole process unfolded. That is remarkably fast. This kid was arrested, indicted, tried before an all-white jury, and sentenced to electrocution, and it only took just a shade over a year.
AMY GOODMAN: In a few minutes, we’re going to play a never-before-played excerpt of an interview with Gary Tyler. But we are also joined by Gary Tyler’s mother Juanita Tyler and his sister Bobbie McCray in New Orleans at public television station WLAE. They just visited Gary at the Angola prison yesterday. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! And let me first turn to Juanita Tyler, Gary’s mother. How is your son?
JUANITA TYLER: Oh, he’s very happy, you know. He’s done good.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Herbert was just telling us about those days when your son was arrested, when he was taken off the bus, when he was beaten. Can you tell us your experience of this, in your own words. Where were you when Gary was first arrested?
JUANITA TYLER: At work. I was at work.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did you hear?
JUANITA TYLER: When I came home, I was stopped in the block of — a lady saying that all the kids said they had said, "I think that it’s your boy in the police car." So I went to the substation, and that was my son, Gary.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And during the period of the trial, could you talk to us about how you — the climate at the time and how your son was treated during the trial period?
JUANITA TYLER: See, we wasn’t allowed in the trial. We wasn’t allowed nowhere in the courtroom or nothing. My whole family. Nobody who was related to Gary could not go into the trial. So I can’t say what really happened in there, because we wasn’t allowed in the court.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And why were you not allowed in the court?
JUANITA TYLER: They said that I was going to be a witness. But I never was called a witness.
AMY GOODMAN: Bob Herbert, you have a question for Juanita, for Gary’s mother?
BOB HERBERT: Mrs. Tyler, when they first arrested Gary and took him to the sheriff’s station, you were there when they actually beat him. Is that correct? And could you tell us about that?
JUANITA TYLER: Yes. Yes. See, they was already at the substation when I got there. Gary was sitting in the police car. So they took Gary — when the police came off the bus with a whole seat, saying that they had a gun, they goes inside and they came back out to the police car and got Gary out of the police car and brought him in the substation. That’s what they called it at the time: the substation. And they brought him in. So I’m trying to — I goes in to try to question or get somebody to tell me something. Then I was asked to leave, you know — you know, leave from up there, because everybody — they made everybody leave then. So I end up and I went back to try to, you know, to call my husband to tell him what had happened and tried to get some kind of help. But we didn’t know what to do. So I goes back up to the substation. That’s when I was able to hear. Two officers were sitting in the front part of the desk, and I asked them if I could talk to my son. I could hear something. I could hear the groaning, beating him. And I tried, but so many police and stuff around, I wasn’t allowed to — nothing.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Bobbie McCray, all these years now, more than 30 years, did you or other members of your family lose hope at any time that some of the truth or the evidence that could point to your brother’s innocence come out?
BOBBIE McCRAY: No, I never lost hope. I always was concerned, hoping that this would never happen, that I just always knew that something was going to come around, even though this was hard, because it’s just hard just talking about it now, just knowing when it brought back up with the beating and stuff, you know? I just knew it had to be justice somewhere to help my brother. So, even though things laid low and it picked back up, I always had that hope that something is going to intervene someday about Gary.
AMY GOODMAN: Bobbie, how old were you when Gary was arrested, when he was 16?
BOBBIE McCRAY: At that time, I was about twenty years old.
AMY GOODMAN: And what were you hearing at that time? What did you understand had happened?
BOBBIE McCRAY: What I had understand that it was — at that time, the kids, it was integrated at the school, and it just started off from a football game, that it just looked like they just couldn’t get along or something, you know. And by all of this was going on, and when that happened with Gary, it’s like it was just so upsetting to hear that, you know, people couldn’t get along. And we wasn’t raised like that. You know, we always was raised around every different color, you know, to learn to love one another. And it just was a hurt thing to see that this kind of stuff that was going on and had went down with Gary.
AMY GOODMAN: Bobbie McCray and Juanita Tyler and Bob Herbert, we’re going to go to break, but when we come back, we’re going to play a never-before-[aired] excerpt of an interview with Gary Tyler that was done several years ago, while he, of course, was in prison. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to one of the few recorded interviews ever done with Gary Tyler since he was imprisoned 32 years ago. It was about 10 years ago. A student named Maia Weerdmeester spent over five hours interviewing Gary Tyler in prison. This interview has never been aired before. In this excerpt, Gary talks about what happened at school on October 7, 1974.
GARY TYLER: I got on the bus, and the bus proceeded to pull off, and that’s when a barrage of rocks, stones, bottles and everything was hitting against the bus, OK? And kids on the bus panicked. Some started rushing toward the front, and everything else, OK? Then, that’s when we heard a pop sound. And Cojoe stopped the bus, and he got off the bus, and that’s when the state police officer told him to get back on the bus. So he got back on, and he pulled it onto some drive, and that’s when they went to shaking down everybody they was sweeping off the bus.
And Ike Randall, in which case, my cousin, the police pulled him on the side. And when I got off the bus, I looked and I asked him what was wrong. He told me that they were arresting him, because he had a .22 bullet with a chain hung around his neck. So I went to explain to the officer that I had one, too. They were arresting him for, wasn’t illegal. So the guy told me to come back off the ditch, so when I went to jump across the ditch, that’s when another police officer stopped me.
AMY GOODMAN: Gary Tyler goes on to talk about how the police beat him after he was taken to the police station.
GARY TYLER: Then that’s when they came and got me. They brought me in, OK? Me and [inaudible] was in the same room. So that’s when the officer went to writing the report on [inaudible] and myself. And when he asked me how old I was, I told him sixteen years old. So he looked at me. He said, "You dumb mother-[expletive]! Why didn’t you tell me you was a juvenile?" I said, "You didn’t ask me." "Stupid mother-[expletive]!"
OK, that’s when they brought me in the back of the substation and they proceeded to beat on me, OK? So it lasted about a few hours, OK? So when they finally decided to let my mother and father see me, you know, and they — you could say within that time that’s when they said Nelson Coleman would talk to me. If I tell him who fired the gun, you know, that would let me off the hook, you understand? Who did it? And if I did it, tell them that you did it, because — no, excuse me, tell them that I did it, because only thing that would happen to me, I would go to Scotland, you understand? And I would be out for a few years. I told him, "For something I didn’t do? No, uh-uh." So when he realized he couldn’t get anywhere with me in reference to that, he left. And that’s when they sent another officer in, and they went to threaten me and stuff like that again.
AMY GOODMAN: Gary Tyler, never-before-broadcast interview, in prison. He has been in prison for more than 32 years. He is at Angola Prison in Louisiana. His mother and sister, Juanita Tyler and Bobbie McCray, with us from New Orleans. They just came back from visiting Gary yesterday. And in studio with us at the firehouse here in New York is Bob Herbert, a New York Times columnist who has done three columns on the case of Gary Tyler.
Now, the gun. Bob, talk about this gun.
BOB HERBERT: Alright, they start off — they’re investigating this thing, but they don’t have a weapon. They don’t have any evidence at all. So they search all the students on the bus. They search the bus itself. They don’t find any weapon. They take Gary Tyler in. The beating occurred. And then, suddenly, miraculously, they come up with the weapon. It’s a .45-caliber pistol. And they say that they found it on the bus. Now, the bus driver insists, even after all these years — he says, "I watched them when they searched that bus. I saw the seat that they say they found this gun in. There never was any gun on this bus."
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the history of the gun?
BOB HERBERT: Well, it turned out that this gun had been stolen from a firing range that was used by the sheriff’s deputies in Destrehan. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that that gun has since conveniently vanished. It vanished as conveniently as it appeared. So as the appeal process goes forward, if his lawyers are trying to do something, they can’t use the gun as evidence to show that they could not connect it to the crime. So that’s one thing.
Another thing, another point that I think is important to make is that a federal appeals court ruled that Gary did not get a fair trial. They said that the charge to the jury was flawed, and they said that it was flawed so badly that it clearly could have had an impact on how the jurors ruled. But they were so insistent on not having this case overturned and not having Gary Tyler freed or have a new trial that they ruled on a technicality that he did not deserve a new trial. So it’s on the record that a federal appeals court has said that his trial was fundamentally unfair.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you also about the witnesses. Supposedly there were four witnesses against him, all of whom have since recanted. In one of your columns, you write about one of those witnesses. And you write, "A sworn affidavit from Larry Dabney, who was seated by Mr. Tyler on the bus, was typical. He said his treatment by the police was the 'scariest thing' he’d ever experienced. 'They didn't even ask me what I saw. […] They told me flat out that I was going to be their key witness. … They told me I was going to testify that I saw Gary with a gun right after I heard the shot and that a few minutes later I had seen him hide it in a slit in the seat. That was not true. I didn’t see Gary or anybody else in that bus with a gun.’"
BOB HERBERT: That’s right. And he has — all of these witnesses have held to the story, the recantation, all of these years. There’s been no wavering on that. And their stories are so consistent that you just tend to believe them. I mean, they all tell the same story about how they were treated and threatened by the sheriff’s deputies, terrorized actually, because they were told that they would be implicated in the murder and would go to prison for several years. And then, the other thing is that the main witness against Gary, who had actually been a former girlfriend of his, was a very troubled young woman who was under the care of a psychiatrist and was known to have reported false crimes to the authorities before, including a false report of a kidnapping. I mean, that was known, understood. She became the main witness in the case.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, Juanita and Bobbie, presumably you knew some of the people who testified, because these were the classmates of your son Gary. Juanita, what was your response as these witnesses came forward and then recanted?
JUANITA TYLER: Well, you know, you’d be surprised, when you hear these kind of things, you know, with them. And so, you know, like, I just heard about it after it had happened. Like I say, I was not allowed in the courtroom, and I don’t know what, you know, the witnesses or what they say, you know, because we wasn’t allowed near in the course the courtroom, you know. So, but I was really hurt, but these kids came to us crying and how they was threatened. Their parents were so scared until they just told their kids to do what they had to do.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And the lawyer who represented your son, could you talk about him and the interchange your family had with the defense lawyer?
JUANITA TYLER: Oh, lord, but at the time, see, I’d never been in anything before, knew anything about a lawyer or anything. And we had hired Jack Williams. We was, you know, represented to some friends of us that told us about Jack Williams. We went to him. He took the case. And he would tell us things, that he had everything together. You know, and we thought that he did. "Oh, Gary is going to get out of there, because we know Gary didn’t do nothing." But when the trial came up, I don’t know. When they had the trial on Gary, Gary was found guilty and sent to the electric chair.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And, Bob, what about the lawyer, the attorney? You’ve written about him, as well.
BOB HERBERT: This was a lawyer who had — he had never tried a murder case before, much less a death penalty case. He had only minimal contact with Gary, who was already locked up. And he was complaining that he wasn’t being paid enough money. I mean, the family was very poor, and he was complaining that he wasn’t getting the fees that he deserved. And if you look at the trial record, there just was not much of a defense put forth for Gary Tyler. I mean, this whole thing was pretty much guaranteed to end up in a conviction.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to another excerpt of the interview with Gary Tyler. Here, he talks about his trial before an all-white jury.
GARY TYLER: Well, I think my fate was already sealed. I think my fate was already sealed. No matter what I said on that witness stand, they wouldn’t have believed me, either way it goes. Even when I was trying to explain to them how the police brutally beat me, they didn’t want to hear that. They didn’t want to hear nothing that I had to say in reference to the way I was treated. Nothing.
Just imagine the climate at that time. The time I was in there, I was harassed by the police officers. How they terrorized me at night, shooting mace in my cell, shining lights, floodlights in the window at night, getting on the bull horn and like, "Gary Tyler, n*****, we’re going to hang you!" That kind of atmosphere that didn’t go on the court. When your mother and your family is shut out of the courthouse and you’re in there just with an attorney that you don’t really know whether he’s fighting for you or not. That was the atmosphere I had to deal with.
And I thought at that time to try to deal with that issue or to lie. And that’s what I did. I lied, said that a gun was being passed. That’s what I said — a gun was being passed — knowing it was not the truth. I did that.
AMY GOODMAN: Gary Tyler, speaking from prison. Bob Herbert, an all-white jury.
BOB HERBERT: All-white jury, yeah. I mean, he was absolutely right. I mean, I believe that the system was rigged at that point, that they needed someone, they needed a black person to convict for this killing, and that he was the designated killer.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about another case. In this case, it was a black young man who was killed.
BOB HERBERT: Yeah. There was a fellow named Richard Dunn, who had attended a dance that was actually a benefit dance to raise money for Gary Tyler’s defense. And so, it’s about, I think, 1:00 in the morning, and people are going home from this dance, and Richard Dunn is walking with another fellow, and a car comes by with some white fellows in it. Somebody leans out of the car with a shotgun and shoots Richard Dunn to death, kills him. So they find the guy who killed him, a fellow named Anthony Mart. They found him, they tried him like they were supposed to. He was convicted, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
And what happened? After 10 years, he received a pardon and was allowed to go free. So here’s a white guy who killed a black guy, absolute stranger, in cold blood. He does 10 years, and he’s freed. In Gary Tyler’s case, Gary Tyler would not be in prison if he was white, and he would not be in prison if the person he was accused of killing had been black. This is really an absolutely racially motivated case.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And who granted the pardon?
BOB HERBERT: Well, it’s the state of Louisiana that grants the pardon. You have to get a recommendation from the pardon board, and the governor signs the pardon. The person could be freed. This could have happened at any number of points in Gary Tyler’s case.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Juanita Tyler, your son lived with the death penalty for years before it was overturned in Louisiana. How did he hold up? How did you hold up?
JUANITA TYLER: We were just communicating, and he would always say, tell me, as long as I can hold up, he can hold up. And that’s how we pulled through all these many years, is by me trying to keep myself alive, and so he’s still alive. And I’m just proud that we was able to hold out, and I’m glad to be here to still be able to see, to go and visit him and talk to him. And I’m still holding on, and he’s still holding on.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask you — Bob Herbert obviously has written now in New York three columns on your son’s case. How have the newspapers and television stations in your own state of Louisiana, how have they covered this case?
JUANITA TYLER: Well, in the beginning they did a little something, when they was just using the word of what Gary had done. But I haven’t really saw anything that the stations here did for to help Gary.
AMY GOODMAN: Bobbie McCray, how has this affected your family? Gary is one of 11 of the kids, your brothers and sisters?
BOBBIE McCRAY: Yes, it really affected us really bad. You know, we was scared all the time, and we just was harassed so bad, and even by — the people in the neighborhood was really scared. They was scared to talk to us. But they always say, "Just hang in there." You know, that’s how we made it. We knew they had the love for us, but they was scared to hang with us, because they was knowing that we was being threatened, and so that they didn’t want to have anything to do too close to us, but they would try to do everything they could for us, but they were scared. And that had us more scared, because we all knew that phone calls, everything just was rushing us and, you know, and we just hung in there. If it wasn’t for Jehovah going through Jesus, that’s how our family really made it, through prayers and the love of people who supported us and just told us to hang in there. That’s what made us strong to deal with this problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Bobbie, you have been doubly hard hit. Your brother is in prison, has been there for 32 years. Your home was destroyed in Hurricane Katrina?
BOBBIE McCRAY: It didn’t get destroyed like the people, because we’re like about 20 miles from New Orleans, where all the real bad effect, but we had a lot of damage in our roof, and then we had to repair a lot, but we didn’t get totally destroyed, because we was, like, in a distance. But the destroy was just seeing other people got destroyed and then the things that we went through with Katrina, and, you know, it just kept, you know, kept — we just tried to keep our faith, so that we wouldn’t be really crushed through by debt and all the other things happening in our life.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And I’d like to ask Bob Herbert about where the case is now: Given all these recanted witnesses, given the information that’s available, where is it in the courts, if anywhere, right now?
BOB HERBERT: Well, it’s not in the courts, but there’s a renewed focus on the case. I mean, I think it’s really great that you guys are focusing on it on your program. I mean, I think that that’s going to be a big help. And so, Gary Tyler’s lawyers have to decide what’s the next affirmative step that they’re going to take. I spoke to Governor Blanco’s office, and they made it clear to me that nothing will be initiated at the state level, but they said that, you know, you could submit, for example, another request for a pardon, and then that would be duly considered. I think with the kind of attention that the case is getting, it puts a little pressure on the governor to rule, you know, perhaps in Gary’s favor, you have to see. But the lawyers have not made a decision yet. They’re looking also to see if there’s another route besides a pardon. I think they need to move pretty quickly, because the spotlight is not going to stay on the case too long. And after a while, once again, Gary Tyler will be forgotten about.
AMY GOODMAN: Way back then, it was a black officer — right? — that Gary had words with on the bus.
BOB HERBERT: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: That seemed to be the thing that singled —
BOB HERBERT: One of the few black deputies on the staff of the sheriff’s department at that time, and he took umbrage at Gary Tyler making a smart remark to him. And that came up at the trial, actually, because Gary had been charged — before he was charged with this murder, he was charged with disturbing the peace. That was the charge for originally taking him into custody. When they put this officer on the witness stand, they said, "Whose peace was he disturbing?" And the response was "Mine." That’s what the officer said: His peace was disturbed.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go back to Gary Tyler for a final time, to that interview, this first time it’s being broadcast. He has always maintained his innocence. He says the state continues to hold him, because they don’t want to acknowledge he was mistakenly arrested and jailed 32 years ago.
GARY TYLER: My fight is to get out of prison, not to be bitter, not to seek vengeance on anyone, not to hate anyone, but to get out of prison, hoping that I get out of here a free man, a man who is able to prove his innocence. Then again, I don’t think it’s so much an issue of me proving my innocence now, OK? I feel that enough has been done to exonerate me of that. It’s just that the system is not receptive to that. The system is not receptive to the mistake that they made in my case, just like they made in other cases around this country. They’re not receptive to that. Twenty-four years. I mean, it implies — to release me now, it would imply that they knew all along. They don’t want to be labeled as the villain. But as long as I continue to be here, it will never die. It will be a thorn in their side. I assume that they expect from the beginning, "Well, we can just scapegoat him and send him to prison, and we’ll never hear anything else about him." They probably done did it before — or they probably have done it before. It just happened that this case didn’t work out the way they expected to.
AMY GOODMAN: Gary Tyler, in prison for 32 years, since he was 17 years old. Bobbie McCray and Juanita Tyler, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Juanita, any last words to leave with our listeners and viewers in this country and around the world?
JUANITA TYLER: I would like to ask the people, if anything that they want to do for Gary Tyler, to help with Gary, they can call freegarytyler.com. I would love for that to get out to people, if you ever want to, you know, do some help for Gary.
AMY GOODMAN: Again, that website is freegarytyler.com, and we will also link to it at democracynow.org. Again, also Amnesty International is renewing its call to the Louisiana authorities for a pardon to be granted to Gary Tyler, the 49-year-old African-American man who has been in prison in Louisiana since the age of 17 and whose 1975 trial, they say, was infected with racial prejudice. Juanita Tyler, Bobbie McCray, thank you for joining us from New Orleans. And, Bob Herbert, New York Times columnist, who has written three columns on this piece, I hope the fourth column will show some progress in this case, albeit after 32 years. We’ll stay with you after break.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Bob Herbert, New York Times columnist, whose book is called Promises Betrayed: Waking Up from the American Dream, a collection of his columns. Angola. You did not get to go to Angola to speak with Gary Tyler?
BOB HERBERT: No, I wanted to, but they wouldn’t allow me. It was very interesting. The word came back that "we’re not interested in having our inmates speak to reporters to politicize their plight," that sort of thing. Then we began to look at the possibility of going there just as a visitor, a personal visitor. It was very interesting. They talked to my assistant. And one of the things that you have to put down in your application is what your race is. They want to know what color you are, if you’re going to Angola.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, Angola is a famous prison, of course, named for the African country where slaves were brought from. It’s a plantation prison, something like 5,000 prisoners.
BOB HERBERT: Oh, it’s a hideous place. I mean, it’s a long horrible history. Documentaries have been done on it. Books have been written about it, you know. And it’s still not a good place, not a good place to be.