Timothy Tyler was 25 when he was sentenced to die in prison.
Tyler, a Grateful Dead fan with no history of violence, got life without the possibility of parole for selling LSD to a police informant.
He’d never gone to prison before.
But a judge was forced to give him life because of two prior drug convictions — even though both those convictions resulted in probation.
At 45, Tyler has been in prison for more than 20 years and will likely spend the rest of his life there. He got the same life sentence as rapist and kidnapper Ariel Castro because of federal mandatory minimum sententence guidelines.
‘Three strikes and you’re out’ no matter the charge
Congress enacted mandatory minimums — also known as “three strikes and you’re out” laws — in response to the 1980s crack epidemic, and many states followed suit with similar laws. These laws force judges to impose strict sentences based on the amount of drugs sold without regard for mitigating factors like drug addiction.
Tyler, for his part, had a history of psychosis and bipolar disorder. He did break the law, though. He sold acid to friends for less than dollar a hit at Grateful Dead concerts, where he also sold fried dough, and he was arrested twice for drug offenses. Then he got arrested a third time after selling larger quantities of the drug to a friend who turned out to be an informant.
“I wouldn’t do it again,” Tyler told Business Insider on the phone from the federal prison in Waymart, Penn. “I wouldn’t have done it if I had known I could have gotten this kind of time.”
To be clear, Tyler got busted for selling a lot of acid — 13,045 hits, according to a pre-sentence memorandum. But that memo doesn’t make him and the guys he got busted with look like career criminals, either.
Tyler only netted about $3,000 from “a very loosely woven conspiracy” that involved selling acid to “friends, family and business acquaintances,” according to the memo prepared by his probation officer. He also made the government’s job easier by pleading guilty.
“He explained to the probation officer that he is psychotic,” the memo read, “and that his condition is complicated by his substance abuse problems.” Under the section of the memo titled “Victim Impact,” it read, “There is no specifically identifiable victim.”
A history of abuse
Tyler is not the only casualty of mandatory minimum sentences, but his case has always troubled Julie Stewart, the president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
She’s known about Tyler since he was sentenced in 1994.
“He was a kid. He was following the Grateful Dead. I’m not condoning it, but it was a pretty harmless lifestyle Timothy was leading,” Stewart told me. “It always seemed really absurd to me that this non-violent guy who was 24 years old, that the government could write off his life. Bingo. You’re gone.”
Tyler grew up in Tarryville and Wolcott, Conn., with his single mother and his sister Carrie, who’s 11 months younger and still considers him her best friend. Their mother, Lura Morris, worked as a waitress and later went to the University of Connecticut and became a social worker.
The kids were happy when they were small, but life got difficult after Morris married a man named Sal when Tyler was about 7. Sal stayed home with the kids while Morris worked full-time. Morris told me in an email message she noticed mania (hyper, impulsive behaviour) and depression in both Timothy and his sister Carrie when they were kids. She found out later her then-husband terrorized her son.
“We had the worst stepfather in the world,” Carrie Tyler-Stoafer told me. “He would just beat my brother, beat his head against the wall, and I would say leave him alone — and he would come after me.”
He was his sister’s protector, their mum told me. Tyler, who’s now a vegetarian, was also a lover of animals who became very attached to “each, consecutive family pet,” his mother said.
Finding happiness as a Deadhead
When he was about 17, Tyler went to his first Dead show and attached himself to the loving hippies he met there. They all did a lot of acid.
“He felt at home at the dead shows, and he just wanted to go all the time,” his sister said. “He didn’t have a job. He just traveled around to the Grateful Dead shows.”
During his early 20s, Tyler had several psychotic episodes. His mother told me that once he stood on a highway in Arizona naked, trying to build a dam, which landed him in a psych ward. He saw Jerry Garcia as God during his more psychotic moments.
He continued having delusions and acting recklessly in his early 20s, doing acid and selling it to his friends at Dead shows.
“He didn’t hurt anybody. He’s not a violent person,” Tyler-Stoafer said of her brother. “He was just kind of reckless. He was doing things without thinking of the consequences.”
Tyler’s ‘strike out’ drug deal
In May of 1992, Tyler sold pot and LSD to a longtime friend who was really a police informant. His father, who was also named Timothy and had a fireworks business in Florida, helped out with the deal and was charged along with his son.
The younger Tyler got life. His father, who had a prior pot charge from the 1969, got 10 years, Tyler-Stoafer told me. He had heart trouble and died in prison when he was 53, after serving 8 years in prison.
Their sentences were devastating for Tyler-Stoafer, who wishes her brother had been given a stint in prison to help him straighten out before that third arrest.
“He didn’t have a time of being clean and sober to think about the damage he was doing to his life,” she said. “The fact they gave him so much time — forever — now he has no chance.”
His last hope
Tyler will die in prison unless Congress does away with mandatory minimums. In that case, his case may be reviewed again. There’s legislation pending that would give more judges flexibility in sentencing, and Julie Stewart of Families against Mandatory Minimums is hopeful that sentencing reform will come.
“The three-strikes-and-you’re-out drug law from the ’80s is not going to stay around forever,” Stewart says. “With the budget crisis, the Bureau of Prisons is taking 25% of every dollar the Justice Department has.”
In the meantime, Tyler does what he can to pass his days behind bars. He plays handball, listens to the Grateful Dead on an MP3 player he was just able to get last year, and corresponds regularly with his sister, who lives in Las Vegas.
Tyler — who dated women before prison including his sister’s best friend — also started having sex with other men in prison because he craved affection. This romance provides a mental escape from the four walls around him.
“I’m here but I’m not in here,” Tyler told me, referring to the psychological escape that sex provides. “I just live. This is the only life I have.”
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