Gary Tyler was released [Guardian report] from Louisiana’s notorious Angola prison on Saturday after serving 41 years of an unconstitutional life sentence for the death of a white high school student resulting from a racially charged confrontation. Tyler spent eight years of his sentence in solitary confinement in Angola, a prison known for harboring racial tensions and considered among the toughest of the state’s prisons. This development comes in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling [opinion, PDF] in January that the unconstitutionality of a life without parole sentence for juvenile offenders is to be applied retroactively. This ruling essentially gave prosecutors a legal avenue to reduce Tyler’s sentence with a guilty plea on Friday. Tyler was only 16 years old when he was convicted and sentenced to death by an all-white jury in Southern Louisiana in 1974 for the death of 13-year-old Thomas Weber. The incident occurred as Tyler was passing through an unruly crowd of white students on a bus filled with black students. Police found a gun on the bus and Tyler was charged with capital murder and tried as an adult. At the time, Tyler was the youngest person on Louisiana’s death row. Afterward, some of the testifying students recanted their stories, but Tyler never received a new trial despite the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal’s [official website] recognition that his conviction was “fundamentally unfair.” Tyler’s death sentence was commuted to life in prison after the state’s mandatory death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in 1976.
The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [JURIST report] in January that a landmark decision banning mandatory sentences of life without parole for juveniles should apply retroactively. The Supreme Court banned life without parole sentences for juveniles [JURIST report] in 2012, but until now that outcome was being applied only prospectively in many states. The case to apply the ruling retroactively was made by Bryan Stevenson [NYU profile], professor at New York University, and executive director of Equal Justice Initiative [advocacy website]. The case involved Henry Montgomery, convicted in 1963 of murdering a deputy sheriff at the age of 17. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. At age of 70, his case came before the Supreme Court with Stevenson’s team arguing on his behalf to apply the ruling in 2012 retroactively to his 1963 life sentence. In a 6-3 opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court concluded that “prisoners like Montgomery must be given the opportunity to show their crime did not reflect irreparable corruption; and, if it did not, their hope for some years of life outside prison walls must be restored.” Tyler’s release is among the first set of what now appears be a long line of juvenile life without parole sentences that will be set aside as a consequence of the Supreme Court ruling.