I don’t enjoy criticizing defense attorneys. Most of them are underpaid and over-worked. Public defenders are asked to handle too many cases; the only way to keep your head above water (and to make any money) is to ask the prosecutor for a plea offer–which is usually forthcoming. But court appointed attorneys and public defenders must understand that, in cases involving a serious risk of wrongful conviction, you have to go to the wall for your client–even if that means losing money on the case.
Blane Williams didn’t get the ethics memo. From the beginning, he has worked for a plea offer–a trial was never in his plans. Yesterday, he entered the courtroom with little preparation. His client kept handing him eyewitness statements and whispering suggestions.
The Alexandria attorney will tell you this “avoid the courtroom at all costs” strategy is in the best interest of his client. Mykal Bell disagreed. The football phenomenon had seen the eyewitness testimony in the case. He knew that most witnesses either didn’t know who hit Justin Barker or identified another student as the assailant. Mykal knew that a football coach who claimed to have witnessed the assault insisted that Mykal was not the boy who threw the knockout punch. Other students identified a mysterious student in a green jacket as the instigator. One boy said the boy who struck Justin Barker wore a red shirt. Neither the green jacket people or the red shirt witness believe that Mykal Bell hit Justin Barker.
Most of the eyewitnesses attended all-white schools with Justin Barker during the elementary and Junior High years. They call Justin a close friend. Several of these students have clearly discussed the details of the December 4, 2006 incident among themselves. Unfortunately for the prosecution, there are at least two distinct circles of memory and they don’t mesh at all. One group says Mykal (or an unidentified student) punched Justin Barker in the face after which a gang of between ten and fifteen other black students started kicking and stomping the victim. The other group has the green jacket boy (clearly not Mykal) grabbing Justin Barker, smashing his head into a concrete pillar (there is no punch in this account) and throwing him to the ground. Will Blane Williams exploit this discrepancy?
Of the ten students who witnessed the attack (including Justin Barker), three say they saw Mykal hit Justin, two say the attacker wasn’t Mykal, and five couldn’t identify the student who threw the first punch. Only one witness out of the ten claims to have seen Mykal kicking Justin once he was on the ground.
Mykal Bell knew that several black students have testified to a prolonged trash-talking session in the high school gym just moments before the assault. Apparently, white students were crowing about a Friday night fight in which Robert Bailey (a member of the Jena 6) “got his butt kicked.” This meant that the assault at the school (whoever was involved) stands in a cause-and-effect chain leading back to the famous nooses hung in a tree in the Jena High School courtyard.
But if Blane Williams was aware of these facts and allegations he showed little evidence of it yesterday. He could have called the coach to the stand who named a student other than Mykal Bell as the hitter. He could have called the black students who referenced a trash-talking episode involving Justin Barker to the stand. Instead, he rested.
So, what happens today? Hopefully, Blane Williams will make some of the arguments referenced above. Unfortunately, his failure to call defense witnesses takes most of my arguments off the table. White jurors will sometimes acquit a black defendant, but only if the state’s case is thoroughly refuted in every detail. Reasonable doubt won’t cut it. White jurors will not put a potentially dangerous black man back on the street if the slightest shadow of suspicion remains. It’s a prudential, public safety calculation. “Best to err on the safe side and put the guy away,” jurors reason.
For this reason, I fully suspect that Mykal Bell will be convicted. I doubt the jury will buy the aggravated assault argument–only in the minds of legal professionals do a pair of tennis shoes constitute a dangerous weapon. But Mykal will likely be convicted of something.
There are only six jurors. In Louisiana this is called a “bob-tail jury”. To get a conviction all must agree. Only if one juror understands the concept of reasonable doubt, and has the backbone to stand alone against five incredulous colleagues, does Mykal stand a chance of acquittal. Intelligence and courage are rare commodities. Some people possess one but not the other; most possess neither. Prosecutors are skilled at weeding intelligent, courageous people out of a jury pool and I suspect Reed Walters made his cuts wisely. So things don’t look good. Check back later today for the details of the verdict.
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