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Gary Tyler served 41 years in prison for a murder he swears, and that all evidence suggests, he didn’t commit.

Gary Tyler

Gary Tyler served 41 years in prison for a murder he says he didn’t commit. Now a free man, Tyler will speak about his life, and about how he came to forgive his accusers, Thursday evening at Viterbo University.

But the 60-year-old Tyler, who can’t talk for 30 seconds without cracking a smile or erupting into one of his deep, booming laughs, has no semblance of anger in him.

“You should never forgot what happened to you — never — but you should let go of the hate and animosity, because hate can be like poison,” said Tyler, who was released in April 2016 after a long chain of judicial decisions that resulted in a plea deal. He’s scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. Thursday in the San Damiano Chapel at Viterbo University.

“Forgiveness is a powerful thing in life,” he said. “I learned how to forgive people for what they’ve done to me.”

In October 1974, in his native Louisiana, Tyler was arrested after a white student by the name of Timothy Weber was shot and killed during a riot over school integration. Tyler had been on a school bus full of other black students at the time of the shooting.

Though the bus driver claimed the shot was fired from outside the bus, and although several searches of the bus turned up no weapon, Tyler was charged with first-degree murder. Less than a year later, he was convicted by an all-white jury.

“You’re looking at a man who once believed that the system was perfect, that justice would prevail,” Tyler said. “I was young and foolish back then.”

Tyler was sent to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the youngest inmate on death row.

He avoided the electric chair when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Louisiana’s death penalty law was unconstitutional. But for years, Tyler still paid with his life.

Lawyers and judges recognized the evidence against Tyler was dubious and likely manufactured, but technicality after technicality kept him in prison.

Meanwhile, Tyler lost his grandparents. He lost his parents. Life was passing him by.

“Luckily, I had a supporting cast around me and never gave up hope that I’d be free,” said Tyler, who finally was set free when the state of Louisiana offered him a plea deal — 21 years for manslaughter, though he had already served twice that.

“It was surreal,” he said. “I didn’t know whether I woke up or what. I had to pinch myself for a few days until I realized I was hurting myself. I had to stop pinching myself.”

Tyler, in essence, had to learn how to live.

He got a driver’s license, a job and an apartment — all for the first time.

He taught himself how to shop for groceries, a task he initially found overwhelming

And he learned from his young niece, who was 3 at the time, how to use a cell phone.

“Each given day is a sense of liberation,” he said. “What other people take for granted, I cherish.”

Tyler makes his home in Pasadena, California, working for a charitable organization called Safe Place for Youth. By supporting children who are homeless or vulnerable, he hopes to save the next generation from the courtroom, from prison, from the life that he had.

In his story, he sees a lesson.

Tyler had almost no control over his case — the arrest, the conviction, the death sentence.

He could have been incensed with the jurors who found him guilty — and for a while, he was. The biggest piece of evidence against him was a handgun that, it was later found, belonged to the Sheriff’s Department’s firing range.

But, he said, “I had a chance to choose the right path. I could gather something good out of something bad. I survived my ordeal and came out a better person than I came in.”

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Kyle Farris can be reached at (608) 791-8234 or kfarris@lacrossetribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Kyle_A_Farris.

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Kyle Farris covers education for the La Crosse Tribune. Reach him at (608) 791-8234 or kfarris@lacrossetribune.com.

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