Saturday, September 15, 2007

Jena 6 Update: Mychal Bell's Conviction Overturned!

JENA, La. - A state appeals court Friday tossed out the aggravated battery conviction that could have sent a black teenager to prison for 15 years in last year's beating of a white classmate in the racially tense Louisiana town of Jena.

Mychal Bell, who was 16 at the time of the December beating, should not have been tried as an adult on the battery charge, the state Third Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles ruled.
Bell is one of six black Jena High School students charged in an attack on fellow student Justin Barker, and one of five originally charged as adults with attempted second-degree murder.

The charges brought widespread criticism that blacks were being treated more harshly than whites after racial confrontations and fights at their school.

Attorney Louis Scott of Monroe said he didn't know whether Bell, whose bond was set at $90,000, would get out of jail immediately.

"It means that at the present time all charges are dismissed," Scott said. "But we don't know what approach the prosecution is going to take — whether they will re-charge him, where he would have to be subjected to bail all over again or not. "We're working on that right now," he said.

Rally for 'Jena Six' planned
Bell was to be sentenced Thursday in a case that has brought international attention to Jena. Civil rights leaders, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, have been planning a rally in support of the teens that day.

"Although there will not be a court hearing, we still intend to have a major rally for the Jena Six and now hopefully Mychal Bell will join us," Sharpton said in an e-mailed statement. "Mychal Bell's parents will still join me in Chicago tomorrow and we will still continue mobilization on this miscarriage of justice." Jackson said, "The pressure must continue until all six boys are set free and sent to school, not to jail."

Racial tensions flared after nooses
Jena is a mostly white town where racial animosity flared about a year ago when a black student sat under a tree that was a traditional gathering place for whites.

A day later, three nooses were found hanging from the tree, evoking for some the image of lynchings in the old South. Caseptla Bailey, a Black community leader and mother of one of the Black students, told the London Observer, “To us those nooses meant the KKK, they meant, ‘Niggers, we're going to kill you, we're going to hang you till you die.’" The attack was brushed off as a “youthful stunt.” The three white students responsible, given only three days of in-school suspension.

In response to the incident, several Black students, among them star players on the football team, staged a sit-in under the tree. The principal reacted by bringing in the white district attorney, Reed Walters, and 10 local police officers to an all-school assembly. Marcus Jones, Mychal Bell’s father, described the assembly as follows:

"Now remember, with everything that goes on at Jena High School, everybody's separated. The only time when Black and white kids are together is in the classroom and when they playing sports together. During lunch time, Blacks sit on one side, whites sit on the other side of the cafeteria. During canteen time, Blacks sit on one side of the campus, whites sit on the other side of the campus.
“At any activity done in the auditorium—anything—Blacks sit on one side, whites on the other side, okay? The DA tells the principal to call the students in the auditorium. They get in there. The DA tells the Black students, he's looking directly at the Black students—remember, whites on one side, Blacks on the other side—he's looking directly at the Black students. He told them to keep their mouths shut about the boys hanging their nooses up. If he hears anything else about it, he can make their lives go away with the stroke of his pen."


DA Walters concluded that the students should “work it out on their own.” Police officers roamed the halls of the school that week, and tensions simmered throughout the fall semester. In November, as football season came to a close, the main school building was mysteriously burned to the ground. This traumatic event seemed to bring to the surface the boiling racial tensions in Jena.

On a Friday night, Robert Bailey, a 17-year-old Black student and football player, was invited to a dance at a hall considered to be “white.” When he walked in, without warning he was punched in the face, knocked on the ground and attacked by a group of white youth. Only one of the white youth was arrested—he was ultimately given probation and asked to apologize.

The night after that, a 22-year-old white man, along with two friends, pulled a gun on Bailey and two of his friends at a local gas station. The Black youths wrestled the gun from him to prevent him from using it. They were arrested and charged with theft, and the white man went free.

The following Monday students returned to school. In the midst of a confrontation between a white student, Justin Barker, and a Black student, Robert Bailey—where Bailey was taunted for having been beaten up that weekend—a chaotic fray ensued. Barker was allegedly knocked down, punched, and kicked by a number of Black students. He was taken to the hospital for a few hours and was seen out socializing later that evening.

Six Black students—Robert Bailey Junior, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Mychal Bell, and a still unidentified minor, allegedly the attackers of Justin Barker—were arrested, charged with attempted second degree manslaughter, and expelled from school.

Impact on the other students
The reversal of Bell's conviction will not affect four other teenagers also charged as adults, because they were 17 years old at the time of the fight and, legally, no longer juveniles in Louisiana, said attorney George Tucker of Hammond.

Bell was 16 at the time of the fight, making him a juvenile under Louisiana law. Tucker, who represented one of teens — Theo Shaw — until Friday, said the boy whose case is in juvenile court will benefit, and Bell will be tried by a judge in juvenile court.

Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr., who heard Bell's case, noted that the district attorney also could appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court. District Attorney Reed Walters did not return a call asking his next step.

Details of ruling
Mauffray had thrown out a conspiracy conviction on which Bell was convicted, saying it was not a charge on which a juvenile may be tried as an adult. But he had let the battery conviction stand, saying Bell could be tried in adult court because the charge was among lesser charges included in the original attempted murder charge against him. He was wrong, the Third Circuit ruled.

While teenagers can be tried as adults in Louisiana for some violent crimes, including attempted murder, aggravated battery is not one of those crimes. Defense lawyers had argued that the aggravated battery case should not have been tried in adult court once the attempted murder charge was reduced.

"The defendant was not tried on an offense which could have subjected him to the jurisdiction of the criminal court," the three-paragraph ruling said. The case "remains exclusively in juvenile court," the Third Circuit ruled.

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