Deadly tennis shoes and legal fatalism

Friends:

I am writing from the LaSalle Parish library, across the street from the courthouse in Jena, Louisiana. I have fifteen minutes to describe the trial of Mykal Bell, so I will have to give you a quick snapshot. My apologies in advance for typos and general inelegance. Sixteen witnesses were called, most of them white school students. A few testified that they had seen Mykal Bell punch Justin Barker in the face. Others attributed the malicious act to an unidentified guy in a green jacket and hooded sweatshirt who definitely was not Mykal Bell. According to the “green jacket” witnesses, Justin Barker’s wasn’t punched at all–his head was smashed into a concrete barrier after which he fell lifeless to the ground. Many witnesses testified that they heard somebody hit Justin Barker, but they didn’t see the deed. Virtually all these witnesses testified that they did not see Mykal Bell kick or stomp the victim–in fact, most didn’t remember seeing the defendant at the scene at all. Two high school teachers also testified–neither saw Mykal punch, stomp or kick the victim.

On the basis of this tangled mess you would easily assume that an acquittal is all but certain. You would be wrong. In fact, District Attorney, Reed Walters, seems determined to press ahead with the charge of “assault with a dangerous weapon” even though not a single witness testified that Mykal possessed a weapon and a bare fist doesn’t fit the legal description. Walter’s theory appears to be that Mr. Bell’s tennis shoes constitute a dangerous weapon. Incredibly, in the state of Louisiana, he has legal precedent on his side. Unfortunately for Walters, only one witnesses testified that Mykal kicked the victim at all. The consensus was that Mykal wasn’t one of the kickers or the stompers.

Now, to a legal layperson like myself, the suggestion that ordinary tennis shoes constitute a dangerous weapon sounds like something out of a Monty Python sketch. You might even think I’m making all of this up. I assure you, I am not.

In fact, Mykal’s court appointed defense attorney appears convinced that nothing he can say or do can save his client from a conviction–at least on the “lesser included” charge of simple battery. Asked if he was ready to begin his defense (after the prosecution had rested), Blaine Williams told the judge that he wouldn’t be mounting a defense. This is madness. All white juries always convict black defendants (in my limited experience) unless the state’s case is meticulously demolished in every detail. You don’t win on points if you are a defense attorney and your client is as poor as Mykal Bell. The mere fact that the state failed utterly to prove a single element of its case will not save Mr. Bell.

Court appointed attorneys easily convince themselves that, because juries are inclined to convict defendants no matter how sketchy the evidence, the best course of action is always to negotiate a quick plea bargain. If the client forces them to trial (as in the case at hand) fatalistic defense attorneys like Blaine Williams simply go through the motions and pray for a light sentence. I know beyond a doubt that I could get up tomorrow and destroy the state’s case in its entirety–in fact, several lay people in the court room this afternoon could win an acquittal for Mykal Bell. But if the defendant is acquitted by the jury tomorrow it will be one of those anomalous cases in which juries depart from their usual pattern–Mr. Williams will certainly have nothing to do with it.

Mykal told several of us during a break in the action that his attorney didn’t consult him before he decided to take a dive in this case. Don’t get me wrong; there are thousands of selfless defense attorneys out there who will go to the wall for their clients even if it means losing money on a case. But there are far too many defense attorneys representing indigent defendants who justify their ineffectual behavior on the theory that nothing they could possibly do could benefit a poor, black client. Today I encountered the worst case of legal fatalism I have ever witnessed . . . and believe me, that’s saying something!

And Jena is only the beginning. We need to organize across Texas and Louisiana to shine a light on our system–consider making a donation to Friends of Justice today and help us fight the good fight!

Alan Bean

Executive Director, Friends of Justice

http:/friendsofjustice.wordpress.com

3415 Ainsworth Court Arlington, TX 76016
mobile: 806-729-7889 
office: 817-457-0025
bean_alan@yahoo.com

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