(Reuters) - A Louisiana man walked free from the state’s notorious Angola prison late on Friday after serving 41 years of an unconstitutional life sentence over the shooting death of a white high school student during a violent and racially charged chapter in the state’s fight to segregate schools.
The high-profile case of Gary Tyler, 57, ended when he entered a guilty plea and was sentenced to 21 years - just over half of the time served - and told he could go home Friday, according to a statement released on behalf of Tyler and his attorneys.
Tyler is among a generation of prisoners who faced harsh conditions and years or even decades in solitary confinement for convictions during racially charged events in Louisiana.
Angola is considered among the toughest of the state’s prisons, once a part of a Deep South plantation and known for seething racial tensions and harsh treatment of inmates.
At age 16 in 1974, Tyler was the youngest person on Louisiana’s Death Row, where an all-white jury sent Tyler, who is black, to die for the slaying of 13-year-old Thomas Weber, a fellow Destrehan High School student in St. Charles Parish in southern Louisiana.
Tyler was aboard a bus filled with black students who were passing an unruly crowd of white students when Weber was shot, the statement said. Police found a gun on the bus and Tyler was charged with capital murder and tried as an adult.
After his death sentence, black and white students who testified against him recanted their stories. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals called his conviction fundamentally unfair and said he was never given his right to the presumption of innocence. But he never received a new trial.
In 1976, his death sentence was commuted to life after the state’s mandatory death penalty was ruled unconstitutional. In the following two decades, the Louisiana Board of Pardons and Paroles voted three times to lessen his sentence.
Still, Tyler served eight years in solitary confinement and more than 30 years in the general population, where he became a mentor and a leader. His case drew national attention as an example of the unfair convictions and over-the-top sentencing and treatment of minorities in the Louisiana justice system at the time.
In 2012, life without parole for juvenile offenders was also ruled unconstitutional, and earlier this year, a court decided the ruling should be retroactive - giving prosecutors a legal avenue to reduce Tyler’s sentence with a guilty plea on Friday.
(This story corrects to say both black and white students recanted in 7th paragraph)
Reporting by Karen Brooks in Fort Worth, Texas, editing by G Crosse