A man who was once the nation’s youngest death row inmate was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on Friday as a result of a plea deal with the St. Charles Parish District Attorney’s Office, ending a legal saga over the 1974 killing of a teenager during a race riot in Destrehan.
Lawyers for Gary Tyler, who has spent nearly 42 of his 57 years in prison, said he was released after pleading guilty to manslaughter Friday in the death of 13-year-old Timothy Weber, a bystander who was shot outside Destrehan High School during a confrontation between white and black students over integration.
In return for the guilty plea, District Attorney Joel Chaisson agreed to vacate Tyler’s conviction on first-degree murder. Tyler was released immediately because at the time of his arrest, the maximum term for manslaughter was 21 years.
“I want to express to the Weber family that I am truly sorry for their loss and pain. I accept responsibility for my role in this,” Tyler said in court, according to a statement released by his legal team. “I ask for prayers for the Weber family and for my family, and for healing in the days and weeks to come.”
Tyler, who is black, was 16 when he was arrested Oct. 7, 1974, the day that Weber, who was white, was shot.
As black and white students fought outside the school, officials loaded black students onto school buses and tried to usher them away, according to a 1994 Times-Picayune article. Authorities alleged that as white students hurled rocks and bottles, Tyler pointed a gun out of a school bus window and shot Weber.
An all-white jury convicted Tyler of murder in 1975 after a trial his lawyers said was marred by racial prejudice and recanted witness statements; he was sentenced to death. That sentence was later reduced to life without parole after a 1976 Supreme Court ruling.
While maintaining his innocence, Tyler sought a pardon for decades, over the objection of Weber’s family.
Leah Weber, the victim’s mother, declined to comment Friday. Chaisson said during the hearing that Weber’s parents agreed with the plea deal, according to the St. Charles Herald-Guide.
The defense and the DA’s Office stated in a joint motion that the plea deal was spurred in part by the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision holding that juveniles convicted of murder as adults must get a chance at parole.
Tyler has served with Angola’s hospice care program for decades, according to his defense team. Former Angola Warden John Whitley and former Assistant Warden Cathy Fontenot both supported his release.
Norris Henderson, a New Orleans activist, said Tyler was “reflective” after his release and plans to move to California.
“To finally see this day come was just surreal,” Henderson said. “This is about healing, redemption and mercy.”