Is this justice?
Kind of a big deal
By Laura Taylor
Feb. 20, 2007
The tide is turning in the fight to abolish the death penalty in the United States. The total number of executions dropped to 53 in 2006, a nearly 50 percent drop since the 90’s. The number of death sentences imposed by juries also decreased, to the lowest number since the death penalty was reinstituted in 1976. But these statistics tell only half the story.
The death penalty is being reconsidered as a means of punishment across America. A moratorium has already been imposed in a number of states following concerns about implementation, specifically with regard to lethal injection.
37 of the 38 states with the death penalty employ lethal injection, seeing it as a clean and humane way to end a life. However, new information reveals that lethal injection may constitute — as journalist Alan Maas describes it — “little more than state-sanctioned torture.” Studies have shown that doses of the lethal cocktail administered are not high enough to keep the prisoner from feeling undue pain.
As the public learns more, doctors and anesthesiologists are refusing to take part in the process. As a result, states with the largest and third-largest death rows — California and Florida, respectively — have stayed death sentences following bungled executions. A host of others — including Tennessee, Maryland, Illinois and Kansas — are also reconsidering their death-penalty laws.
Though nothing is certain, there is hope that abolition of the death penalty is on the horizon. As significant as that would be, however, the prison-justice movement must address concerns beyond the death penalty. As most know, prisoners who are spared the death penalty usually have their sentences commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Can we honestly call this justice?
For prisoner Gary Tyler, the answer is no. Sentenced to die at age 17 in 1975 for first-degree murder, Gary was once the youngest person on death row. Although his sentence was later commuted to life, Gary has spent 32 of his 48 years on this planet in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.
Gary was a teenager when, more than a decade after Brown v. Board of Education, states began desegregating public schools. In most counties, this meant busing black students like Gary to all-white schools, where they often met racist hostility. Gary’s home of Destrehan, La., was no exception. In October 1974, several people were stabbed in a fight between black and white students at the local high school. The principal closed the high school and evacuated the black students. Gary boarded Bus 91 with 65 of his classmates while a white mob threw bottles at the bus. One of the black students noticed that one of the white boys was carrying a gun, and within seconds a gunshot downed another white student, Timothy Weber, who later died of his wounds.
Police at the scene immediately stormed the bus, ordering all the black students off. They meticulously searched the bus and the black students, finding no sign of a weapon. Gary, however, was arrested for “disturbing the peace” after standing up to the police when they harassed his cousin.
The police were determined to make someone pay for the shooting, and Gary was a convenient target. When he refused to “confess,” the police beat him savagely. Though he maintained his innocence, the police coerced testimony from two fellow students, both of whom later recanted their statements. Police then “found” a gun in Gary’s seat, despite having found nothing during their initial three-hour search. Testing was done connecting the gloves Gary was wearing to that gun, but the tester resigned in 1976 after being accused of lying about the results; independent testing was never done on the gun or the bullet. In effect, the police had created all the evidence they needed.
The presiding judge at Gary’s trial was Ruche Marino, identified as a former member of the White Citizens Council of Louisiana — “a suit and tie version of the Ku Klux Klan,” according to journalist Joe Allen. After a five-day trial, Gary’s fate was put in the hands of an all-white jury. Predictably, they found him guilty of first-degree murder, which then meant an automatic death sentence.
A national campaign took on Gary’s case, and his lawyers won a stay of execution. In July 1976, petitioners gathered more than 92,000 signatures demanding his release. With appeals still pending, the Supreme Court ruled the Louisiana death penalty unconstitutional. While this saved Gary from imminent death, his appeals hit a dead end. Since the late 80’s, Gary has repeatedly applied for parole and has been denied each time.
For 30 years, Gary has been imprisoned at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The 18,000-acre compound, built on a former slave plantation, houses 5,000 men, 75 percent of whom are black. According to Allen, “the life of prisoners inside Angola is little better than slavery,” with 85 percent of those imprisoned expected to die there. During his time there, Gary was expected to pick cotton at 3 cents per hour; when he refused, he was put in solitary confinement. Day in and day out, Gary remains confined, despite public figures like Rosa Parks and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter speaking out on his behalf and having Amnesty International declare him a political prisoner.
To this day, Gary and his family have not stopped fighting for his release. In his own words, “I emphatically and unequivocally maintain my innocence as I did in 1974 and hope that one day justice will eventually prevail in this matter.” As the fight for abolition of the death penalty moves forward, we also cannot forget those who have been left in prison to die. We must fight to free Gary Tyler and all those who have been imprisoned by a system that has not done them justice.
Laura Taylor is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Kind of a Big Deal appears Tuesdays.