Friday, September 21, 2007


Jena Six refers to a group of six black teenagers who have been arrested and charged with crimes related to their alleged involvement in the assault of a white teenager in Jena, Louisiana, on December 4, 2006. The incident is one of many racially charged events that have occurred in the town since the hanging of nooses on the "white tree" on the Jena High School campus, which some have called a prank and others say recalls the history of lynching. Critics of how the case was handled, including civil rights activists Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, have said that the arrests and subsequent charges were racially motivated. Some residents of the town - both white and black - have expressed the view that the current problem is more the fault of outsiders using racial politics to influence the justice system. Additionally, U.S. Attorney Donald Washington has expressed the opinion that although discipline was mishandled by the school, he has found no reason to believe that there was unfair judicial action.

The "white tree" incident

At Jena High School, students of different races seldom sat together. Black students traditionally sat on bleachers near the auditorium, while white students sat under a large shade tree, referred to as the "white tree", in the center of the school courtyard.

During a school assembly on August 31, 2006, a black male freshman student asked permission from the principal to sit in the shade of the "white tree." According to the recounting of events given by U.S. Attorney Donald Washington, the question was posed in a "jocular fashion." The principal told the students they could "sit wherever they wanted." The freshman and his friends then sat under the tree.

The following morning, three nooses were discovered hanging from the tree. Jena's principal learned that three white students were responsible and recommended expulsion. The board of education overruled his recommendation, to which Superintendent Roy Breithaupt agreed. The punishment was reduced to three days of in-school suspension. The school superintendent was quoted as saying, "Adolescents play pranks. I don't think it was a threat against anybody."[8] Black residents of Jena claim that this decision stoked racial tensions that led to subsequent events.

According to U.S. Attorney Donald Washington, the FBI agents who investigated the incident, as well as federal officials who examined it, found that it "had all the markings of a hate crime." However, it wasn't prosecuted because it failed to meet federal standards required for the teens to be certified as adults.

In late July 2007, U.S. Attorney Donald Washington claimed a lack of connection between the noose incident and the beating at Jena High school. None of the statements taken regarding the fight, over 40 in all, mentioned the noose incident.

The "pen statement"

Police were called to the school several times in the days after the noose incident in response to a rash of interracial fights between students.[5] In response to the fights, the principal called an impromptu assembly on September 6, 2006, in which students segregated themselves into white and black sections. The Jena Police Department asked LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters to attend and speak at the assembly. Walters was unhappy with the request because he was busy preparing for a case and, upon arrival, felt that the students were not paying proper attention to him.[5] Walters is alleged to have threatened the protesters if they didn't stop fussing over an "innocent prank"[10]. He then went on to warn the students that he could be their friend or their worst enemy, and stated that "[w]ith one stroke of my pen, I can make your life disappear."[3] Walters and school board member Billy Fowler, also present, deny that the comments were specifically directed at black students.[3] Nevertheless, police began patrolling the halls of Jena High on September 7. The following day, the school received a report that a student had brought a gun on campus, prompting a total lockdown to be enforced, though no gun was ever found.[11]

Student attempt to address school board

On September 10, 2006, black students attempted to address the school board concerning the recent events but were refused because the board was of the opinion that the noose incident been adequately resolved.[12] Racial tensions and fights continued through the fall but were held in check by the ongoing successful football season.

Jena High School arson

On November 30, 2006, the main building of the high school was set on fire. The building was gutted and had to be later demolished. Blacks and whites accused each other of the arson.[3][13]

Fair barn party incident

On Friday, December 1, 2006 there was a private party, attended mostly by whites, at the Fair Barn. Five black youths, including 16-year-old Robert Bailey, attempted to enter the party at about 11 p.m. According to U.S. Attorney Washington, they were told by a woman that they were not allowed inside without an invitation. The five youths persisted, stating that some friends were already in attendance at the party. A white man, who was not a student,[5] then jumped in front of the woman and a fight ensued. After the fight was broken up, the woman told both the white man and five black youths to leave the party. Once outside, the black students were involved in another fight with a group of white men, who also were not students.[5] Police were then called to investigate. Several months later, Justin Sloan, a white male, was charged with battery for his role in the fight and was put on probation. Bailey later stated that one of the white men had broken a beer bottle over his head,[7] though there are no official records of medical treatment being given.[5]

Convenience store incident

On Saturday, December 2, 2006, an incident apparently stemming from the Fair Barn fight the day before occurred at a local convenience store. A white student who had attended the party encountered Bailey and several friends. Reports from the involved parties are conflicting,[14] but indicate that an argument occurred, the white student produced a shotgun from his pickup truck, and that the gun was ultimately taken away from him by Bailey and his friends.[3] Local police reported that the accounts of the white student and black students contradicted each other and formed a report based on testimony taken from eyewitnesses. The white student testified that Bailey and his friends shouted and ran after him, that he ran to get his gun, and that the students wrestled it away from him. [14] According to the black students, as they left the convenience store, they were confronted by the white student with a shotgun. They then claimed to have wrestled the gun away from him and fled the scene. [14] The incident resulted in Bailey being charged with three counts: theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery, and disturbing the peace. The white student who produced the weapon was not charged.[3][5]

The assault

On December 4, 2006, Jena High School student Justin Barker, age 17, was assaulted by other Jena High students. According to reports, earlier that day Barker, a white student, bragged about how one of his alleged attackers, Robert Bailey, Jr., had been beaten up by a white man the Friday before.[3] Barker, who denies making the comments, was then knocked to the ground after being hit in the back of his head. From there, according to some witnesses, a group of black students followed suit by repeatedly kicking him.[15] Barker, who was left unconscious after the attack, was examined by a doctor at the local hospital. In the meantime, the six students accused of the attack, eventually dubbed the "Jena Six",[16] were arrested.

Barker's injuries

Barker was released from the hospital after two hours of treatment and observation for a concussion and an eye that had swollen shut.[7] The emergency physician's record shows that he also had injuries to his face, ears and hand.[17] He then attended his school's Ring ceremony that evening,[7] though he later testified, "I waited 11 years to go to it. I wasn't going to let that get in my way," and that he ended up leaving early due to pain.[18]

During the trial, Barker also testified that his face was badly swollen after the attack and that he lost vision in one eye for three weeks. He also stated that he suffered recurring headaches since the attack, though tests have detected no medical cause for them.[18]

Trial, prosecution, and legal proceedings

Five of the students — Robert Bailey, Jr., Mychal Bell, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, and Theo Shaw — were initially charged with assault,[19] though the sixth — Jesse Ray Beard — was charged as a juvenile because he was 14 at the time.[20] However, District Attorney Walters increased the assault charges to attempted second-degree murder, provoking protests from black residents that the charges, which could result in the defendants being imprisoned past age 50, were disproportionate to the crime.[7]

Mychal Bell trial

Mychal Bell, a juvenile, had been previously convicted of four violent crimes. Bell served probation for a battery that occurred December 25, 2005, and he was subsequently convicted of another battery charge and two charges of criminal damage to property.[21] On June 26, 2007, the first day of trial for defendant Mychal Bell, Walters agreed to reduce the charges for Bell to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery.[22] A charge of aggravated battery requires the use of a "deadly weapon". Walters thus argued that the tennis shoes that Bell was wearing and used to kick Barker with were deadly weapons, an argument with which the jury ultimately agreed. Witness accounts conflicted over whether he was involved in the attack.[23] However, court-appointed public defender Blane Williams, himself a black man, did not call a single witness in his attempt to defend Bell.[23]

Bell faced an all-white jury. However, this did not result from the jury selection process. Instead, it resulted from an all white jury pool. The 150 people called for jury duty included black citizens, but only 50 people appeared, and none of them were black. [20] One of the jurors included a high school friend of the victim's father.[24] The jury found Bell guilty and faced the possibility of up to 22 years in prison. The judge scheduled sentencing for September 20, 2007.

Following the trial, Bell's new defense attorneys, Louis Scott and Carol Powell-Lexing, requested that a new trial on the grounds that Bell should not have been tried as an adult and that the trial should have been held in another parish.[25] A request to lower Mychal Bell's $90,000 bond was denied on August 24, 2007, due to his juvenile record.

On September 4, 2007, a judge dismissed the conspiracy charge but let the battery conviction stand, though he agreed that Bell should have been tried as a juvenile.[26] On September 14, 2007, Louisiana's Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Bell's battery conviction ruling that he shouldn't have been tried as an adult. Louis Scott, Bell's attorney, has indicated that the charges are dropped for now, but also noted that the situation may change depending on what path the prosecution takes.[27] The La Salle Parish district attorney, J. Reed Walters, has said that he will appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.[28] On September 20, 2007, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal ordered that a hearing be held within 72 hours to decide whether Bell can be released.[29]

The other five

On September 4, 2007, charges against Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy,[30] as were those of Robert Bailey, Jr., on September 10.[31]

Despite the overturning of Mychal Bell's conviction, the charges against the other four teenagers remained unaffected because they were over seventeen at the time of the incident, thus making them adults under Louisiana law.[27]

Public outcry

In the wake of these events, an online petition circulated claiming over 385,285 signatures as of September 20, 2007.[32] The petition calls for a review of the events by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department in order to determine whether there were any civil rights violations during the trials.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) established a fund to help pay attorney fees,[33] and on September 18, musician David Bowie donated $10,000 to it. In a statement he said, "There is clearly a separate and unequal judicial process going on in the town of Jena. A donation to the Jena Six Legal Defense Fund is my small gesture indicating my belief that a wrongful charge and sentence should be prevented."[34]

Even though Mychal Bell's conviction has been overturned, a rally was held on September 20, 2007, the date when he had been scheduled to be sentenced.[35] Civil rights activists Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Martin Luther King III attended,[36] as did rapper and actor Mos Def.[37] Darryl Hunt was scheduled to be a key speaker.[38] Because up to 60,000 people were expected to attend the rally,[36] schools on the south side of LaSalle Parish, including Jena High School, were closed on September 20 and may be closed on September 21.

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