Gary Tyler still paying with his life

February 1, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist
A Death in Destrehan

Destrehan, La.

On the afternoon of Oct. 7, 1974, a mob of 200 enraged whites, many of them
students, closed in on a bus filled with black students that was trying to
pull away from the local high school. The people in the mob were in a
high-pitched frenzy. They screamed racial epithets and bombarded the bus
with rocks and bottles. The students on the bus were terrified.

When a shot was heard, the kids on the bus dived for cover. But it was a
13-year-old white boy standing near the bus, not far from his mother, who
toppled to the ground with a bullet wound in his head. The boy, a freshman
named Timothy Weber, died a few hours later.

That single shot in this rural town about 25 miles up the Mississippi River
from New Orleans set in motion a tale of appalling injustice that has lasted
to the present day.

Destrehan was in turmoil in 1974 over school integration. The Supreme
Court?s historic desegregation ruling was already 20 years old ? time
enough, the courts said, for Destrehan and the surrounding area to comply.
But the Ku Klux Klan was still welcome in Destrehan in those days, and David
Duke, its one-time imperial wizard, was an admired figure. White families in
the region wanted no part of integration.

When black students were admitted to Destrehan High, they were greeted with
taunts, various forms of humiliation and violence. Some of the black
students fought back, and in the period leading up to the shooting there had
been racial fights at a football game and inside the school.

While the Weber boy was being taken to a hospital, authorities ordered the
black students off the bus and searched each one. The bus was also
thoroughly searched. No weapon was found, and there was no evidence to
indicate that the shot had come from the bus. The bus driver insisted it had
not come from the bus, but from someone firing at the bus.

One of the black youngsters, a 16-year-old named Gary Tyler, was arrested
for disturbing the peace after he talked back to a sheriff?s deputy ? one of
the few deputies in St. Charles Parish who was black. It may have been young
Tyler?s impudence that doomed him. He was branded on the spot as the
designated killer.

(Later, at a trial, the deputy, Nelson Coleman, was asked whose peace had
been disturbed by Mr. Tyler?s comments. ?Mine,? he replied.)

Matters moved amazingly fast after the shooting. Racial tension gave way to
racial hysteria. A white boy had been killed and some black had to pay. Mr.
Tyler, as good a black as any, was taken to a sheriff?s substation where he
was beaten unmercifully amid shouted commands that he confess. He would not.

It didn?t matter. ‘n just a little over a year he would be tried, convicted
by an all-white jury and sentenced to death by electrocution.

The efficiency of the process was chilling. Evidence began to miraculously
appear. Investigators ?found? a .45-caliber pistol. Never mind that there
were no fingerprints on it and it turned out to have been stolen from a
firing range used by the sheriff?s deputies. (Or that it subsequently
disappeared as conveniently as it was found.) The authorities said they
found the gun on the bus, despite the fact that the initial search had
turned up nothing.

The authorities found witnesses who said that Mr. Tyler had been the gunman.
Never mind that the main witness, a former girlfriend of Mr. Tyler?s, was a
troubled youngster who had been under the care of a psychiatrist and had a
history of reporting phony crimes to the police, including a false report of
a kidnapping. She and every other witness who fingered Mr. Tyler would later
recant, charging that they had been terrorized into testifying falsely by
the police.

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,? he said. ?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.?

Mr. Tyler was spared electrocution when the Supreme Court declared
Louisiana?s death penalty unconstitutional. But in many ways he has in fact
paid with his life. He?ll turn 50 this year in the state penitentiary at
Angola, where he is serving out his sentence of life without parole for the
murder of Timothy Weber.