Let’s put the Christ back in Christmas by recalling that he was put to death following a sham trial. This is a fact I pondered after interviewing a former death row inmate named Gary Tyler, who was released in April 2016 after spending more than 41 years in Louisiana’s Angola prison for a crime he didn’t commit.
Tyler, an African American, was a 16-year-old student at Destrehan High School when he was accused of killing a young bystander during a racial disturbance back in 1974. Turmoil was rampant at the New Orleans suburb’s previously all-white secondary school. Since 1969 it had been the site of demonstrations by parents and students opposed to the integration of Destrehan High brought about by the court-ordered busing in of black students from around the region. As The New York Times reported, “they were greeted with taunts, various forms of humiliation and violence. Some of the black students fought back.”
After racial fights broke out on October 7, 1974, officials closed the school early, and black students boarded their buses, which soon came under attack by a mob of more than 100 angry whites, some throwing rocks and bottles. A shot rang out, and a 13-year-old white boy standing nearby was fatally wounded.
The black students were ordered to vacate their buses and then searched. Seeing his cousin being harassed by a sheriff’s deputy, Gary Tyler protested, resulting in his arrest for disturbing the peace. Despite the driver’s claims that the shot came from outside and that no weapon was found on the bus during a search the driver had witnessed, Tyler was taken to jail, brutally beaten for more than two hours and accused of the murder.