Robert Scheer Interviews Gary Tyler, Wrongly Imprisoned for Decades
On his KCRW show “Scheer Intelligence,” Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer spoke with Gary Tyler, who served over 40 years in prison after being wrongly convicted as a teenager of murdering a 13-year-old boy in 1974.
After being on death row twice during his sentence, Tyler was finally freed this spring. Before his release, he directed a passion play cast only with prisoners from Angola penitentiary in Louisiana, where he was incarcerated. The experience was made into the documentary “Cast the First Stone.”
Tyler tells Scheer how the play forever changed him and the cast of prisoners, how he maintained hope over the years that he would eventually gain his freedom, and how a group of seasoned inmates helped him survive in prison.
—Posted by Alexander Reed Kelly
Robert Scheer: Hello, it’s Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, my weekly podcast with KCRW. The intelligence comes from our guests and today our guest is Gary Tyler, a remarkable person who got swept up in a series of events when he was 16 years old. Attempt to integrate schools in Louisiana and the viscous white resistance to it and in the process of a turmoil one such day, a young man was shot and they hunted to see who did it and despite the available evidence, they picked on Gary Tyler, a 16 year old.
Tried as an adult, denied legal competence, this was all determined by courts later, and yet, was on death row for two years in Louisiana and through a series of court decisions invalidating – the Supreme Court – Invalidating the death penalty, he ended up serving life without possibility of parole.
However, this last April, was finally paroled after 41 and a half years in Angola Penitentiary, one of the largest and fearsome prisons in the United States, if not the world. Welcome, Gary Tyler. Let’s begin with the 16 year old who’s blamed and fingered for murder and convicted and looking at electrocution.
Gary Tyler: Thank you, Bob. On October the 7th, 1974, I was a 16 year old juvenile and that morning, there was a rumor that there was going to be an altercation blacks and white students at the school. I was earlier suspended after I departed from the bus and I was suspended three days and I left. Later I was brought back to the school by one of the deputies that felt that I was not only truant but also suspect of being one of the perpetrators that was involved in a racial conflict at Destrehan High School at the time. When he brought me back to school and found out that I was not the one that the principals and everything felt that was part of the incident, I was immediately ordered to depart from his vehicle.
Upon doing so, a decision was made between myself and the guy that I was with to catch a ride on the school buses that was going back to the community. At that time, they was ushering people on the bus, not the exact bus that was going directly to their community. We was put on a school bus and as we departed from the school, there was a shot. Many on the bus panicked feeling as though they were being shot at. Of course, the bus driver stopped. Later, he was told to park the bus on a side road and when he did that, that’s when everybody was being pulled off the school bus and was searched.
Little did we know at the time, that someone was shot and we just felt that during the time of the heyday of the racial integration at the schools that it was just one of those things that routinely that we were being harassed that we were being discouraged from going to school.
When I look – we were being deported and ordered to go in a vacant parking lot and I, of course, along with the other students, we were basically gathered in that general area. I saw my cousin, he was being harassed and pulled aside. I wanted to know what was happening and he told me that they was arresting him for having a .22 bullet around his neck. I protested. The deputy told me to come back across the ditch. As I was attempting to do so, that’s when I was stopped by another police officer. I protested and one thing led to another and I was arrested for disturbing the peace and interfering in police officer’s duty.
After everything cleared up at the school, that’s when I was, you could say, transported to the substation. They went to asking questions. When I didn’t have the answer, then that’s when they went to beating on me and like I said, for about two to three hours. I was beaten by several police officers in the substation until my mother intervened because she heard the beating in the room. She demanded that she see somebody. When they tried to transfer me to another room, then that’s when she saw what happened. I called out and told her that they was accusing me of doing something about a murder. Little did I know at the time, that someone had gotten shot. Everyone at the time was a suspect, but little did I know, later on I was the prime suspect behind it. They transported me and they charged me with first-degree murder of a 13 year old white kid at the school.
Scheer: As the facts emerged, first of all, you were very poorly defended and the courts were critical of that eventually –
Scheer: You were tried as an adult, even though you were 16 and you got international attention of having been wrongfully imprisoned. You were on death row for two years.
Scheer: And got off death row and ended up, until this last April, being in Angola Penitentiary in Louisiana for 41 and half years. How did you get from being wrongfully accused, you’re 16 years old, you’re in this really rough prison and you’re on death row for two years. Why aren’t you crazy? Why weren’t you destroyed by this?
Tyler: Many people ask me that question, a lot. Sometimes the answer that I give them, I guess it’s not enough because many of them say that despite everything that I told them, that if they were in my situation that they would be stark mad and that they would hate the world. I guess, in a way, they are right about that, but you know, for some reason a human being, they are genetically built to endure the difficulties that we find ourselves going though.
I guess, at the time, when I was in prison, I was introduced to a culture that I never thought existed. I mean, not in my mind. I could never fathom that something like this existed, period. I was sent to a prison at a very young age and a prison that, at one time, had been declared the bloodiest prison in the United State. As a child, you know we heard a lot about it. We never thought – well that was no concern of mine, because I’d never go to prison. Unfortunately, I wound up in prison. And not only on death row, but also there was an execution date set on me. May the 1st, 1976. That beared heavily on my mind.I guess when I went to prison, I didn’t know anybody. I’ll never forget that when I went to death row, they had these doors that were slamming and prisoners shouting and hollering. It was like being introduced to an insane asylum, I guess.
When I was put on a tier, it was a short tier with 14 people. No, I take that back, there were 13 people on the tier. I was assigned cell eight. When I stepped across that threshold in that cell, that’s when the cell door slammed behind me and at that time, it was one of the most weirdest sounds I ever heard. But it was like my fate had been sealed. That now my execution date was set and I was going to set there until that day come. And it was fast approaching.
Nonetheless, then on death row, I’d gotten to know some guys that at that time, they was considered the incorrigibles. The worst of the worst in prison. That the prison administrators feared and the kept them locked up in c-cell, in which case, close cell restriction. They kept these guys monitored. They thought the worst of these guys.
For some reason, these guys when they saw me come on that tier, as young as I was, in which case, I didn’t know anybody, wasn’t familiar with the culture of prison. What they did, they formed a bond around me; they took me in. We’re talking about guys who was in prison for murdering other prisoners, who committed horrible crimes in prison. But, when they saw me, they saw their little brother, they saw their son, they saw their nephew, they even saw their neighbor’s child, and they knew that no way in the world, physically, that I’d be able to survive this environment if they didn’t step up to help me. And that’s what they did. And I contribute that to those guys, because they were able to help me to survive and gather my footing while I was in prison. They gave me the best of themselves and I guess because they knew that their lives was over with and they saw hope within me.
Scheer: You had some people on the outside trying to help your case, right?
Tyler: Right, right. I had, you know, even after 41 and half years later, those very people –
Scheer: Well, there’s a guy here who teaches here at USC, Bill Blum, who’s a former judge. He wrote an article about your case back in 1970.
Scheer: Advocating your case. And then I look back at the record and there were famous rock groups and others who had songs about you. Your case did get some attention and publicity.
Tyler: Right. Yes.
Scheer: But it still didn’t get you out.
Tyler: No, it didn’t. What it did was that it kept my plight alive with the public. It reminded people of the injustice that not only had been perpetrated against me, that I was still in this suspended, you understand, state of injustice. It gave me hope knowing that people were out there. People who correspond with me, the letters that I’ve gotten from people, the cards, who have constantly, on an annual basis, encouraged me to hold, to stand, to be strong. And, don’t let this get the best of you that one day something good going to happen.
Scheer: So how did you get involved with the theater group in prison?
Tyler: Well, after getting out of CCR and later, the cell block, there was a guy named Herman Smith. He was over the drama club. He was looking forward to going home. He read a lot about me and he felt that he wanted to leave the organization in some capable hands. Now, I never ran no organization before in my life. The only thing I had for me is who I am and my reputation. But he felt that I would be a good addition to the drama club.
Scheer: So this is a guy who’s getting out of prison and he cares that the drama club continue?
Tyler: Yes. Because drama club was one of the earliest organizations that was established in prison because back then, they did not have any recreational activities that was in the prison itself. When later, when the inmates was allowed to establish self-help programs, the drama club was one of the organizations that was earlier developed. And he had been the president of that organization ever since.
Scheer: He singled you out. Let me ask you though, the thing that happened with the drama club, which brings us to the question of this movie that people can watch that shows about your production. First, there was a woman that helped you and then the warden who got involved.
Scheer: And it kind of got mixed up with telling the story of Jesus and that this was supported by the local Baptist, Christian community, right? Or, Catholic community in Louisiana? How did that happen? You’d done a lot of plays with this drama club.
Tyler: Yes, we did numerous productions inside of the prison, matter of fact, we were one of the first prison organizations that traveled around the state, performing at universities, college, schools, and civic centers. Bring our message out. And what we did was that, we had wrote plays centered around social issues like teenage pregnancy, drug abuse, Alcoholic Anonymous, and various other things. We performed around the country, excuse me, around the state with our production. So, it kind of, like gave the guys in the organization, you understand, it gave them that experience. They was able to sharpen their acting abilities. But, you know, after so many years of performing, you had people that able to build their confidence, people that able to feel as though that they could just about do anything.Scheer: Well the startling thing about, I didn’t see the play, which was performed at the prison. But the film about the play, everyone in, and we didn’t get to this part, but insisted on having women actors come over from the women prison. Every single person who made the cut, I guess you had auditions, they were all, like, stellar actors. They were professionally incredible.
What is the title, by the way?
Tyler: Cast the First Stone.
Scheer: Yes. How did that play, that particular production come about?
Tyler: It came about through one of the assistant wardens that went to Scotland. She went to Scotland on a tour and she was invited to a Passion Play and she watched it and she liked what she saw. She felt, I guess she got an idea that, that this same production could be performed in Angola. But when she came back, she went to the religious community in the prison and asked them would they be willing to do the play. And, of course, many of them had their reservation. The felt that they weren’t capable of doing it and, at the same time, my name kept coming up in the middle of the conversation.
She, at the time, she wanted the religious community because they felt that by Angola having one of the biggest faith-based program in the nation that it would have been good having graduates of the Bible college performing the play. Not realizing that those guys were not actors. Those guys were basically typical plain, just old prisoners. They did not have any acting experience and many of them kind of shoned away from it. But they kept telling her that, “You need to get Gary to do it, get Gary to do it. If anybody can make this happen, Gary can do it.”
Later she came to me and she asked me about it. Would I be willing to do this? Of course, I had my reservations. How it would look for me to do a Christian play in a prison that thrives off of Christianity. And that many of them know that I was not a man of any Christian or religious belief. And that they would vehemently be against me taking on that responsibility. But little did I know that they was the ones that kept recommending that I was the one to do the production.
Scheer: This is actually a good side of the impact of religion in that this warden, because he’s on your film, he’s in the film –
Scheer: He says, “Well, you know, the other thing of just oppressing these people and beating them down and everything is not working; we got to do something else here.” And he said he was inspired that through Jesus’ message of love and understanding and openness, something other could happen, right?
Scheer: I know you’re not, you don’t call yourself a religious person, although many of your actors are. Not all Christian.
Scheer: You have Buddhist, Muslims.
Tyler: Muslims, Jewish.
Scheer: But the fact of the matter is, this is a case where that religious impulse that was brought into the prison basically from more conservative, Southern-types ended up being a good thing, you know?
Tyler: Yes, of course. One thing that I’m also asked that I have to the liberty to rewrite the script. I was given the latitude to do that. What I did, in turn, was –
Scheer: You got to rewrite the Bible?
Tyler: Well, what I did was, I kind of like, you could say, compacted it a little more and took out the more practical things out of the script, you understand? We’re talking about a play that it took over three to four hours to perform. The Passion Play. And I had to do this play within 2 hours. So I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do everything in the script, so give me the liberty to change things, and I’m then going to give, you understand, you what you want.
I took some things out and I also wrote characters in the script as well as one in particular, Judas, because I felt that Judas was a pivotal character back then. We’re talking about someone who had betrayed Jesus. That’s all many people remember Judas about. I realized that what Judas did, he was destined to do that. Even though he was destined to do that very act, that it was something that was ordained from the heavens. And that we look at Judas as the betrayer of Jesus, but Judas could be setting right there next to Jesus in heaven today. Because he was forgiven by Jesus. Despite the treacherous act that he committed, he was forgiven by Jesus.
And right there, I felt that it showed redemption; it showed forgiveness and that’s why I wanted Judas, you understand, to be a pivotal role in the play itself.
Scheer: So let me ask you, first of all, most of the actors are African American in the play, right? Is the prison population disproportionately –
Tyler: The prison population, yes, of course, disproportionately, African American.
Scheer: And yet, within that community, you have people who are not. You had, as I said before, different religions and different attitudes, but the interesting thing was that the ideas were ideas that everyone could grab onto and relate back to their own life. The amazing thing about watching that is you are watching and listening to a conversation that is as intelligent as you’re ever going to listen to but from people who are basically not well-educated, I assume, or not all, and have had a hard life and are in a prison and have every reason to be cynical and say, “who needs this,” and yet, you have one of the most thoughtful discussions of the meaning of life and of values and of the worth of individuals. Precisely as the image of Christ that we have was intended to convey.
Tyler: Right.Scheer: Right. And all these notions of forgiveness. I was amazed that the warden seemed to endorse that whole approach. Were you surprised in his little speech?
Tyler: Yes, I was, and I felt that it was needed. It was needed to the women and men that was in the production because you know, let’s look at where we’re at. We’re talking about people who are serving life sentences, who are serving a long stretch in prison, whether it’s life or not and, they could have been doing other things. They all agreed to do this production because they felt that this gave them an opportunity to be able to give back to society. It gave them a chance to be able to show people that they were not that person that they were when they first went to prison. That they have changed. And also to be able to prove to their families that despite where they are at, that they can make the best out of a bad situation.
Of course, I was able to recruit people from all walks of life in the prison. Also, that we’re talking about some people that had disciplinary problems and I knew these guys. I knew that giving them a chance, an opportunity, I could help transform them. I like that I had opportunity to interview and audition, you understand, these guys, because I opened it up to the prison population and I was getting, if you consider the worst of the worst, and to hear these guys say, “Give me chance. Let me prove myself.” It’s like people asking society, “Give me a second chance.” So, I heard their cries and I gave them that chance. I found them to be the most committed and dedicated actors that I had in the production.
Scheer: Even though as you say in the movie, many of them knew they were only leaving that prison in a casket?
Tyler: Yes, yes.
Scheer: Who was Jesus in your play?
Tyler: Jesus was performed by a guy named Bobby Wallace, who now is out.
Scheer: And the performance, is it an open area in part of the prison?
Tyler: Yes, but it was performed in the Rodeo Arena.
Scheer: Tell me about the audience because it was a lot of family –
Tyler: It was open to the public and the public, family members, people from various universities and schools. It was – We had a very resounding attendance from the public. Before the ladies and men stepped on that stage I was able to talk to them. I let them know that this was their moment, not mine. It was theirs. I did everything I could to help them. I gave them the best of me so now everything was in their court and it was, understand, it was their time to shine and fortunately, they rose to the occasion. They went out there and the performed like champs.
Scheer: When I watched the movie on the play, I had a sense – I wouldn’t say I believe any more in a heaven, a hell and an afterlife, I certainly did feel it was inspirational. I felt touched, touched. I wonder if you felt, having spent so much time with this material, whatever you think about religion, you’re dealing with the basic issues of human existence. What is the meaning of life? What is right and wrong? What do I stand for? Who am I? Did you become, were you influenced by it?
Tyler: Yes, of course. You’re influenced by everything that goes on in life and doing this production wasn’t any difference to me. I always felt that even though I wasn’t a religious man, that I was a spiritual man. I’m someone that I can accept anyone for who they are and what they believe in. Because I feel that to accept people for who they are, it gives you an opportunity to get to know them, to be able to appreciate them. And having to work with the men and the women of these two different prisons, what it did was that, it helped educate me. It helped gave me a profound appreciation of working with people, you understand, from various backgrounds. I can set here and tell you those very people, regardless of their belief, they have showed me that they have changed. That they are not the people they were when they first went to prison.
Scheer: The interesting thing about this film is it’s also a documentary. You see scenes from the play but, you also see people having arguments. You see somebody who you go visit in his cell and he’s falling off, right? He’s gotten involved with some druggers –
Tyler: Yes, he’d gotten in a physical altercation with another prisoner.
Scheer: He can’t be in the play at that time.
Scheer: You get a lot of this human interaction. However, I – Not however, because of that I defy anyone to watch this film and still think of people in our – This massive incarcerated population that we have in this country, the largest in the world, certainly, by far as proportional to our population, and think of them as the other. Not think of them as themselves, their own family, their own people. I think that is the great achievement of this film. That it forces you to recognize the humanity of people that we have systematically attempted to put out of sight, out of mind, and deny their humanity. I think it’s a singularly important artistic achievement. I want to thank you once again for doing this and to encourage people to check it out; it’s really profound. Thank you.
Tyler: Thank you, Robert for having me here.
Scheer: This is Robert Scheer, another edition of Scheer Intelligence where the intelligence is supplied by my guests, in this case, Gary Tyler, 41 and a half years in prison, great director of an important play. Maybe one of the most important plays that you can see and his film version. My producers have been, Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Technical engineers are Mario Diaz and Cat Yore, here at USC where they’ve generously supplied the studio, Sebastian Grubar. See you next week for another edition of Scheer Intelligence.