Oh, but we do. Twenty-two percent of all American children live below the poverty level. Forty-seven million Americans are without health insurance. But nowhere is the schism more evident than in the U.S. criminal justice system.
For example: a white felony defendant with no criminal record stands a far higher chance of having the charge reduced to a misdemeanor or infraction than a black or Hispanic in similar legal circumstances. If a white, an African American and a Hispanic kid, each with no prior criminal records, are all charged with the same offense, the African American kid is six times more likely to be incarcerated than the white kid; the Hispanic kid three times more likely.
Then there is the case of Gary Tyler. Tyler, 49, has been in prison in the Louisiana state penitentiary at Angola for over 30 years. At age 17 he was convicted of murdering a 13-year-old white boy in the fall of 1974 in Destrehan, Louisiana, during the height of that town’s school integration crisis. Tyler is black.
A federal appeals court ruled that Tyler’s murder trial was “fundamentally unfair,” but Tyler has never been granted a retrial. Three pardon boards have recommended to two Louisiana governors that Gary Tyler’s life sentence be commuted, but neither governor has taken action.
Now Amnesty International is pushing for Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco to pardon Tyler before she leaves office in January.
Yet it’s the details of Tyler’s case—and then of another Louisiana case—which demonstrate the unequal justice that too often still exists in America.
Mr. Tyler, a sophomore at Destrehan High, was on a bus filled with black students that was attacked on Oct. 7, 1974, by a white mob enraged over school integration. A shot was fired and a 13-year-old white boy standing outside the bus collapsed, mortally wounded. Mr. Tyler was arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace after he talked back to a sheriff’s deputy.
Although the bus and its passengers were searched and no weapon was found, Mr. Tyler was taken into custody, savagely beaten and accused of committing the murder. A gun was “found” during a subsequent search of the bus and witnesses were rounded up to testify against Mr. Tyler. It turned out that the gun (which has since disappeared) had been stolen from a firing range used by officers of the sheriff’s department. All of the witnesses who fingered Mr. Tyler would eventually recant, saying they had been terrorized into testifying falsely by the
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.
So if the bus and the kids were searched thoroughly —twice—how could the mysteriously appearing gun have been pinned to Taylor?
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.”
Tyler was represented at trial by a white lawyer who had handled mostly civil cases, in the past. In the year prior to the trial, he spent a total of an hour with Tyler. He did not interview witnesses, present any expert witnesses or conduct tests on physical evidence offered by the state, and failed to object to gross errors committed by the trial judge.
The outcome was predictable . Mr. Tyler was convicted and sentenced to die in the electric chair by an all-white jury. At 17, he was the youngest prisoner on death row in the country. He almost certainly would have been executed if the U.S. Supreme Court had not ruled the Louisiana death penalty unconstitutional.
The Fifth Circuit ruling in 1981 said that an improper charge to the jury had denied Mr. Tyler the presumption of innocence at his trial. “It is folly,” the court said, “to argue that the erroneous charge did not affect the central determination of guilt or innocence.”
Yet, Tyler was denied the new trial on a technicality. After that, on three separate occasions the Louisiana Board of Pardons recommended that Gary Tylers sentence should be reduced, on one occasion, making him immediately eligible for parole, but these recommendations were rejected.
Contrast those actions, or lack of action, with another story Herbert tells, of another Louisiana shooting—but this one has a very different outcome.
Now consider this, because it will tell you all you need to know about racial justice in the South. A 19-year-old black man named Richard Dunn was shotgunned to death as he was heading home from a benefit dance in support of Mr. Tyler at Southern University in New Orleans in 1976. A white man, Anthony Mart, was arrested and convicted of shooting Mr. Dunn from a passing car.
Gary Tyler’s current attorney, Mary Howell, ruefully explained what happened to Mr. Mart for the cold-blooded killing of a black stranger: He was sent to prison for life but was pardoned and freed after serving about 10 years.