This AP story on Jena has been picked up coast to coast, including leading Texas papers like the Houston Chronicle.
Charges reduced for student in La. fight
© 2007 The Associated Press
JENA, La. — An all-white jury was seated Tuesday to hear the case against the first of a group of black students accused of beating a white schoolmate amid escalating racial tensions at a central Louisiana high school.
Five women and a man are set to hear opening arguments Wednesday in the trial of 17-year-old Mychale Bell in LaSalle Parish, where the black population is only about 12 percent.
“I’m sure I can get a fair trial,” said Blane Williams, Bell’s defense lawyer. “You can’t tell me there aren’t six people in this town who won’t listen fairly and do the right thing. I think people have a tendency to do the right thing.”
Bell and four other black students faced up to 80 years if convicted of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the December beating, which occurred several months after three white students were suspended for hanging nooses from a schoolyard tree.
But the district attorney Monday reduced Bell’s charges to aggravated second-degree battery, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years, and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery, which carries a maximum sentence of 7 1/2 years.
“Well, anything is better than murder and a lifetime in prison,” said John Jenkins, whose son, Carwin Jones, is among the charged. “But it’s still strange. All of a sudden they’re talking about a weapon. What weapon? We never heard anything about a weapon before.”
Aggravated second-degree battery involves use of a dangerous weapon, according to state statutes. Parents of the accused say they had heard no previous mention of a weapon.
But attorneys on both sides, during questioning of jurors, indicated prosecutors will try to say that something not usually thought of as a weapon — such as a ring or an ink pen — could be considered a dangerous weapon during a fight.
There was no word whether the charges would be reduced for the other defendants, who will be tried later. Prosecutors refused to discuss the case.
The five defendants and a juvenile, whose identity and charges were not released because of his age, were dubbed the “Jena Six” by supporters who say the attempted murder charges resulted from racism by authorities and were out of proportion to the seriousness of the alleged crime.
The racial tension began in August in Jena — a town of 2,900 with about 350 black residents — after a black student sat under a tree traditionally used as a gathering spot by white students. The next month, three nooses were hanging in the tree when students arrived on campus.
“You didn’t see the district attorney rush out to school to do anything about those nooses in the tree,” said Caseptla Bailey, whose son, Robert Bailey Jr., also was charged in the beating. “You don’t see white kids who beat up black kids charged with attempted murder.
“There’s nothing fair going on here.”
The school’s principal recommended the students who hung the nooses be expelled, but they served brief suspensions instead.
On Dec. 4, Justin Barker, who is white, was attacked at school by a small group of black students. He was treated at a hospital.
“I saw him that night at school for the ring ceremony,” Jenkins said. “I could tell he had been beat up, his face was bruised, but he was out and about, so he couldn’t have been too bad.”
David Barker, Justin’s father, declined comment Tuesday during a break in the trial. “There are two sides to every story. There are two sides to this one. But I just don’t want to talk about our side now,” he said.
Theodore Shaw also had been scheduled to go to trial this week, but his case was delayed. Trial dates for the others — Bryant Purvis, Bailey, Jones and the unidentified juvenile — have not been set. Shaw and Bell have been held since their arrests, unable to post $90,000 bond.