A New Orleans attorney tells the Jena story

Bill Quigley is one of the most prominent civil rights attorneys in New Orleans. He couldn’t be at Mychal Bell’s trial, but his assistant, Audrey Stewart was present. Bill and Audrey have done an excellent job of summarizing the primary issues. Please forward this readable account to your friends and allies. I particularly like the repeated references to “the white tree”. Nice touch–and completely accurate.

Please consider supporting the work of Friends of Justice, and keep us organizing across Texas and Louisiana! You can donate securely on Paypal by following this link. Thanks to all those who have already given!

Alan Bean
Friends of Justice
(806) 995-3353
(806) 729-7889

Injustice In Jena As Nooses
Hang From The “White Tree”

By Bill Quigley
03 July, 2007
In a small still mostly segregated section of rural Louisiana, an all white jury heard a series of white witnesses called by a white prosecutor testify in a courtroom overseen by a white judge in a trial of a fight at the local high school where a white student who had been making racial taunts was hit by black students. The fight was the culmination of a series of racial incidents starting when whites responded to black students sitting under the “white tree” at their school by hanging three nooses from the tree. The white jury and white prosecutor and all white supporters of the white victim were all on one side of the courtroom. The black defendant, 17 year old Mychal Bell, and his supporters were on the other. The jury quickly convicted Mychal Bell of two felonies – aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. Bell, who was a 16 year old sophomore football star at the time he was arrested, faces up to 22 years in prison. Five other black youths
await similar trials on attempted second degree murder and conspiracy charges.
Yes, you read that correctly. The rest of the story, which is being reported across the world in papers in China, France and England, is just as chilling.

The trouble started under “the white tree” in front of Jena High School. The “white tree” is where the white students, 80% of the student body, would always sit during school breaks.

In September 2006, a black student at Jena high school asked permission from school administrators to sit under the “white tree.” School officials advised them to sit wherever they wanted. They did.
The next day, three nooses, in the school colors, were hanging from the “white tree.” The message was clear. “Those nooses meant the KKK, they meant ‘Niggers, we’re going to kill you, we’re going to hang you till you die,’” Casteptla Bailey, mom of one of the students, told the London Observer.

The Jena high school principal found that three white students were responsible and recommended expulsion. The white superintendent of schools over-ruled the principal and gave the students a three day suspension saying that the nooses were just a youthful stunt. “Adolescents play pranks,” the superintendent told the Chicago Tribune, “I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.”

The African-American community was hurt and upset. “Hanging those nooses was a hate crime, plain and simple,” according to Tracy Bowens, mother of students at Jena High.

But blacks in this area of Louisiana have little political power. The ten person all-male government of the parish has one African-American member. The nine member all-male school board has one African American member. (A phone caller to the local school board trying to find out the racial makeup of the school board was told there was one “colored” member of the board). There is one black police officer in Jena and two black public school teachers.

Jena, with a population of less than 3000, is the largest town in and parish (county) seat of LaSalle Parish, Louisiana. There are about 350 African Americans in the town. LaSalle has a population of just over 14,000 people – 12% African-American.

This is solid Bush and David Duke Country – GWB won LaSalle Parish 4 to 1 in the last two elections; Duke carried a majority of the white vote when he ran for Governor of Louisiana. Families earn about 60% of the national average. The Census Bureau reports that less than 10% of the businesses in LaSalle Parish are black owned.

Jena is the site of the infamous Juvenile Correctional Center for Youth that was forced to close its doors in 2000, only two years after opening, due to widespread brutality and racism including the choking of juveniles by guards after the youth met with a lawyer. The U.S. Department of Justice sued the private prison amid complaints that guards paid inmates to fight each other and laughed when teens tried to commit suicide.

Black students decided to resist and organized a sit-in under the “white tree” at the school to protest the light suspensions given to the noose-hanging white students.

The white District Attorney then came to Jena High with law enforcement officers to address a school assembly. According to testimony in a later motion in court, the DA reportedly threatened the black protesting students saying that if they didn’t stop making a fuss about this “innocent prank… I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.” The school was put on lockdown for the rest of the week.

Racial tensions remained high throughout the fall.
On the night of Thursday November 30, 2006, a still unsolved fire burned down the main academic building of Jena High School.

On Friday night, December 1, a black student who showed up at a white party was beaten by whites. On Saturday, December 2, a young white man pulled out a shotgun in a confrontation with young black men at the Gotta Go convenience store outside Jena before the men wrestled it away from him. The black men who took the shotgun away were later arrested, no charges were filed against the white man.

On Monday, December 4, at Jena High, a white student who allegedly had been making racial taunts, including calling African American students “niggers” while supporting the students who hung the nooses and who beat up the black student at the off-campus party was knocked down, punched and kicked by black students. The white victim was taken to the hospital treated and released. He attended a social function that evening.

Six black Jena students were arrested and charged with attempted second degree murder. All six were expelled from school.

The six charged were: 17-year-old Robert Bailey Junior whose bail was set at $138,000; 17-year-old Theo Shaw – bail $130,000; 18-year-old Carwin Jones bail $100,000; 17-year-old Bryant Purvis bail $70,000; 16 year old Mychal Bell, a sophomore in high school who was charged as an adult and for whom bail was set at $90,000; and a still unidentified minor.

Many of the young men, who came to be known as the Jena 6, stayed in jail for months. Few families could afford bond or private attorneys.

Mychal Bell remained in jail from December 2006 until his trial because his family was unable to post the $90,000 bond. Theo Shaw has also remained in jail. Several of the other defendants remained in jail for months until their families could raise sufficient money to put up bonds.

The Chicago Tribune wrote a powerful story headlined “Racial Demons Rear Heads.” The London Observer wrote: “Jena is gaining national notoriety as an example of the new ‘stealth’ racism, showing how lightly sleep the demons of racial prejudice in America’s Deep South, even in the year that a black man, Barak Obama, is a serious candidate for the White House.” The British Broadcasting Company aired a TV special report “Race Hate in Louisiana 2007.”

The Jena 6 and their families were put under substantial pressure to plead guilty. Mychal Bell was reported to have been leaning towards pleading guilty right up until his trial when he decided he would not plead guilty to a felony.

When it finally came, the trial of Mychal Bell was swift. Bell was represented by an appointed public defender.
On the morning of the trial, the DA reduced the charges from attempted second degree murder to second degree aggravated battery and conspiracy. Aggravated battery in Louisiana law demands the attack be with a dangerous weapon. The dangerous weapon? The prosecutor was allowed to argue to the jury that the tennis shoes worn by Bell could be considered a dangerous weapon used by “the gang of black boys” who beat the white victim.

Most shocking of all, when the pool of potential jurors was summoned, fifty people appeared every single one white.
The LaSalle Parish clerk defended the all white group to the Alexandria Louisiana Town Talk newspaper saying that the jury pool was selected by computer. “The venire [panel of prospective jurors] is color blind. The idea is for the list to truly reflect the racial makeup of the community, but the system does not take race into factor.” Officials said they had summoned 150 people, but these were the only people who showed up.

The all-white jury which was finally chosen included two people friendly with the District Attorney, a relative of one of the witnesses and several others who were friends of prosecution witnesses.

Bell’s parents, Melissa Bell and Marcus Jones, were not even allowed to attend the trial despite their objections, because they were listed as potential witnesses. The white victim, though a witness, was allowed to stay in the courtroom. The parents, who had been widely quoted in the media as critics of the process, were also told they could no longer speak to the media as long as the trial was in session. Marcus Jones had told the media “It’s all about those nooses” and declared the charges racially motivated.

Other supporters who planned a demonstration in support of Bell were ordered by the court not to do so near the courthouse or anywhere the judge would see them.

The prosecutor called 17 witnesses – eleven white students, three white teachers, and two white nurses. Some said they saw Bell kick the victim, others said they did not see him do anything. The white victim testified that he did not know if Bell hit him or not.

The Chicago Tribune reported the public defender did not challenge the all-white jury pool, put on no evidence and called no witnesses. The public defender told the Alexandria Town talk after resting his case without calling any witnesses that he knew he would be second-guessed by many but was confident that the jury would return a verdict of not guilty. “I don’t believe race is an issue in this trial…I think I have a fair and impartial jury…”

The jury deliberated for less than three hours and found Mychal Bell guilty on the maximum possible charges of aggravated second degree battery and conspiracy. He faces up to a maximum of 22 years in prison.

The public defender told the press afterwards, “I feel I put on the best defense that I could.” Responding to criticism of not putting on any witnesses, the attorney said “why open the door for further accusations? I did the best I could for my client, Mychal Bell.”

At a rally in front of the courthouse the next day, Alan Bean, a Texas minister and leader of the Friends of Justice, said “I have seen a lot of trials in my time. And I have never seen a more distressing miscarriage of justice than what happened in LaSalle Parish yesterday.” Khadijah Rashad of Lafayette Louisiana described the trial as a “modern day lynching.”

Tory Pegram with the Louisiana ACLU has been working with the parents for months. “People know if they don’t demand equal treatment now, they will never get it. People’s jobs and livelihoods have been threatened for attending Jena 6 Defense meetings, but people are willing to risk that. One person told me: ‘We have to convince more people to come rally with us…..What’s the worst that could happen? They fire us from our jobs? We have the worst jobs in the town anyway. They burn a cross on our lawns or burn down my house? All of that has happened to us before. We have to keep speaking out to make sure it doesn’t happen to us again, or our children will never be safe.’”

Whites in the community were adamant that there is no racism. “We don’t have a problem,” according to one. Other locals told the media “We all get along,” and “most blacks are happy with the way things are.” One person even said “We don’t have many problems with our blacks.”

Melvin Worthington, the lone African American school board member in LaSalle Parish said it all could have been avoided. “There’s no doubt about it,” he told the Chicago Tribune, “whites and blacks are treated differently here. The white kids should have gotten more punishment for hanging those nooses. If they had, all the stuff that followed could have been avoided.”

Hebert McCoy, a relative of one of the youths who has been trying to raise money for bail and lawyers, challenged people everywhere at the end of the rally when he said “You better get out of your houses. You better come out and defend your children…because they are incarcerating them by the thousands. Jena’s not the beginning, but Jena has crossed the line. Justice is not right when you put on the wrong charges and then convict. I believe in justice. I believe in the point of law. I believe in accepting the punishment if I’m guilty. If I’m guilty, convict me and punishment, but if I’m innocent, no justice…” and the crowd joined with him and shouted “no peace!”

What happened to the white guys? The white victim of the beating was later arrested for bringing a hunting rifle loaded with 13 bullets onto the high school campus and released on $5000 bond. The white man who beat up the black youth at the off-campus party was arrested and charged with simple battery. The white students who hung up the nooses in the “white tree” were never charged.

The people in Jena are fighting for justice and they need legal and financial help. Since the arrests, a group of family members have been holding well-attended meetings, and have created a defense fund the Jena 6 Defense Committee. They have received support from the NAACP, the Louisiana ACLU and Friends of Justice. People interested in supporting can contact: the Jena 6 Defense Committee, PO Box 2798, Jena, LA 71342 jena6defense@gmail.com; Friends of Justice, 507 North Donley Avenue, Tulia, TX 79088 www.fojtulia.org; or the ACLU of Louisiana, PO Box 56157, New Orleans, LA 70156 www.laaclu.org or 417.350.0536.

What is next? The rest of the Jena 6 await similar trials. Theodore Shaw is due to go on trial shortly. Mychal Bell is scheduled to be sentenced July 31. If he gets the maximum sentence he will not be out of prison until he is nearly 40. Meanwhile, the “white tree” outside Jena High sits quietly in the hot sun.

Bill is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. You can reach him at Quigley@loyno.edu Audrey Stewart contributed to this article.

Leave A Comment
Share Your Insights


Comment Policy

21 thoughts on “A New Orleans attorney tells the Jena story

  1. Greetings and Blessings,
    I discovered this story by accident. I am an African -American women with a 18 year old son who, so far has not given me any trouble( Thank God), but yet I constantly worry about my young African American brothers and sisters. If these injustices ,are not dealt with a strong blow, they will continue. We have to wake up, there are cases like this all over the country ,and we sit back and let them destroy an entire generation. I fear that if African Americans keep their eyes closed , Jim Crow is going to creep back into our grandchildren lives.
    Hebrews13:3 Remember those in prison, as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.

  2. I may be a white, but I find this story of injustice abhorent. I cringe at the thought that racially motivated hate crimes are still committed in America and the perpetrator is left unpunished. I am ashamed and appalled by the society we live in if we do not stand up for equality and justice for all. Too many people turn a blind eye to the truth. Thank you, Bil Quigley, for brining this story to light. I hope it will inspire more people to continue the fight for civil rights so that we can all cross over the racial divide.

  3. John:

    Who is the mystery person who knows the truth. If it’s God I have already been introduced. If it’s a Jena resident, please send me contact information and I’ll ask them to fill me in.

    Alan Bean

  4. Hi Lydia and all,

    I got an email linking to Quigley’s article at the Black Commentator, and I sat down finally and read through a whole bunch of your blog and your links to this case. I tried to give you some more coverage over at The RP. Keep it up!!!!



  6. I find it deplorable that in the United States, a nation that shoves human rights down the throats of other countries, that this sort of thing is still happening in 2007.

    When will we learn that we”The United States” are our own worst enemies.

    We cannot fight for justice and equality anywhere else in the world until justice and equality becomes a reality in America.

    The Ku Klux Klan no longer needs to wear the white sheet– all “he” needs to do is use the stroke of his pen.

  7. I challenge all law firms in the United States with multi-million dollar “pro bono” budgets to get on board and represent these young men. If the major law firms of the United States can represent suspected terroists held in Guantanamo Bay (and they should); if they can represent illegal immigrants seeking asylum in the United States (and they should); if they can represent injustices against homosexuals (and they should), and the various other worthy causes needing legal representation, then CERTAINLY they can REPRESENT FREE OF CHARGE the young men known as the Jena 6. This is a NATIONAL issue — not a local issue. This miscarriage of justice which happens more than we care to acknowledge — can no longer be TOLERATED. As a single mother, I wholeheartedly commit my prayers, but more importantly, my resources, to the representation of the Jena 6.

  8. My heart goes out to the families of these young men, and to the young men themselves. I have two young men of my own 18 and 23. I moved back home five(5) years ago. I know racism is everywhere, but this is the worst area where it is so open. But I’m here to tell them all. BE CAREFULL, BE VERY CAREFULL. I said that to say this. We as a people, when we stand together for what is right, it doesn’t matter whether you are white or black we will be heard. This is a prime example. There’s not anyone in the US whom has not heard about the JENA SIX, whether they wanted to hear it or not. So when a particular race tries to destroy another race you are not only fighting one race you are fighting your own race as well. Because there are just as many whites standing up for the JENA SIX as it is blacks. It seems there are many whites in this area who believe anyone outside of their race is beneath them. Let me inform you: We are not our ancestors, but we will fight for them with the help of the Good Lord. NO WEAPON FORMED AGAINST US SHALL PROSPER, WE ARE MORE THAN CONQUERS THROUGH JESUS CHRIST WHOM STRENGTHEN US. GOD BLESS YOU ALL.. I say this to the families, Keep the faith. This too shall pass. We got the victory!!!!!!!

  9. My first time hearing about this situation on Monday when i was listening to the Micheal Baisden show. I was very shock when i heard what happened to those young men. I have been praying for them, because i feel as long as they are on trial there, they will not be judged fairly. I wasn’t surprised about the verdict when i heard that the entire jury panial was all whites. How in the world could that have happened. There was no way all those white juries was going to say that those young men were not guilty. I will continue to pray for the Jena Six and their families, and that they relocate the trial somewhere else so those young men can at least have a chance to have a fair trial. GOD BLESS JENA SIX AND KEEP THE FAITH, BECAUSE WITHOUT FAITH THERE’S NOTHING.

  10. This is just gut wrenching. As a white male I am ashamed. How could we raise our youth to still feel and act this way. To urge something on like they did, and I hate to say this, these kids knew that they would get away w/it. They knew, somehow, that no matter how far they pushed, if any of the black students did anything they would be punished. The DA made this very known w/the visit to the school. If you want a true trial and want to try and get these kids out of prison (b/c if it stays in Jena, that is where they will all end up), we need to get the trial out of the state and moved. I know that this will take more than I know, but if this trial is left up to the people that “with a stroke of their pen” can change someone’s life, they will do the max sentence and never come up for a breath…meanwhile, the DA will be enjoying knowing the “power” that he has. This is just flat out racism at it’s finest! To all of the people of Jena that know that this is wrong and have family directly involved in this, I, Eric Santomauro, am sorry and my prayers go out to you.

  11. Tears well up in my eyes as I read this article and other articles pertaining to this incident. I grew up in Louisiana and the racism has existed so long there that it is actually a part of life in Louisiana. Beleive it or not, some of these kids don’t even realize that it’s wrong. They see NOTHING wrong with being separate. Some school still have separate proms and separate Senior activities. The only thing that takes place ‘together’ is athletic events and the graduation.

    It’s really sad, because all of this really starts with education. These kids (white or black) aren’t taught any better. They don’t realize that out in the REAL world, the races have to work together.

    I love my home, but something has to change. Leave Iraq alone and fix home.

  12. My family and I (2 young men 17 & 15, daughter ,12, chose to sat down and read the entire Jena Six story . We gather as much information as we could, As I read the story my 12 year old began to cry, and my sons were deeply touched.My 15 year old is going to write Mychal to encourage him. After reading the story and sharing our views and opinions with one another. We decided to first PRAY, for all 6 young men, there families, that community and our country. Secondly send money to support this case. This miscarraige of justice has had an effect on millions of people,of all ages, races and social backrounds. But it is my prayer that the lives of those directly affected by this will see the GREAT HAND of GOD over them, be encouraged and rest assure that GOD is JUST (Justice).

  13. Where do I start. I feel real pain and sorrow for the boys accused. I feel real anger and dusgust for the instigators of this mess. Where are the heros here? Are you asking me, a nobody to save their lives? One man with limited funds to make a difference? I can send money, but then what? I lose time and position to bring myself to the location and stand with my brothers. And for what? Because that act will save thier lives? I don’t see that. I will be just another face that would be inconsiquential. And the boys will still be lost. A great event must take place to change the course of these events. This trial must be seen all over the country. Why is it not in the news on every channel daily? I sit here writting this and the lacross players are still in the news. Who is banging the drum for the Jena six in the news. Why isn’t Barack and Jessy and other black leaders speaking out about this. I did a google for the Jena 6 and found 3 million hits. How is it that no one is stepping up to the plate and addressing this issue?? (Anderson Cooper is the exception) I am a Mexican America 3rd or 4th generation (not sure which) and I fear for my and my brothers rights. I try to improve my brothers plight by improving my own. I hope that if I continue to educate myself and improve my circumstance, my boys, thier children and our race will prosper. But all my efforts are washed away by some small town in LA that is allowed to act as they please. black boys have died in Iraq for the Iraqi peoples freedom. Who will throw themselves on this sword of injustice. There is no one willing to sacrifice thier political or finacial or social prosperity for these 6 boys lives?? But I can make a difference?? I hope someone will help these boys, I hope someone will throw caution to the wind and accept that they may lose their shirt in the process. I hope a hero will step forward for all of us and make a difference, because all the money in the world will not make a racist change his stripes. And the only thing that can be saved here is the boys lives. Racism will take decades, if not centurys to die.

  14. I to just like you and every body who read this story know this is not right, land of the free where is it?not here not there and if the People dont stand now it will get worse,
    yes we need a hero but that hero must come by us not just one but many, one Nation
    unto GOD where there is Unity there is Strength, we must all make our stand together
    are die trying to make this a Better place for the young, hero every time one Voice thier
    opinion for something that is right he or she that’s a hero to me black or white, we the
    People i hope we all step out the Convert of homes and begain to take part in the lives of others come on tomorrow is not Promise to us ether

  15. the only injustice here is that the white kids weren’t charged in the same way. otherwise, who cares? the 6 kids who beat that white kid are headed for jail one way or another, lets face it. and if they lived in the north or anywhere else it would be the same thing. i’m supposed to be impressed because one was a “star” footballer? for some reason he’s incapable of being violent? football is a violent sport. seriously, if this were an all white case, if all of the players in this story were white, no one would care about the injustice. injustice happens all the time, the only time people take note is when there are black faces involved. the rich walk on the poor, that’s why people pay attention to oj. because he’s rich. or was.

  16. This is just awful. First of all i think that those white students should have gotten introuble for what they did more than a suspention. They should have had charges pressed against them for breaking the first admenment. I am a 16 year old white student, and about 95% of my friends are black and if something like this were to happen to one of them i would lose my mind so my heart goes out to those families and all those treated unfairly there. When i was younger i used to think that the justice system was really fair but as i got older i learned that things are not always what they seem. If that atterny had cared a little bit more about his case he would have relized that the are a few amendments being broke. This is no longer a state case it is now a fediral case and it needs to be looked at it that way. These are the kind of things that makes me want to be a lawyer i hate seeing these kinds of things.

  17. Its not surprising that all of this racial tension has exploded now. yes them white kids were beyond wrong and they should have been punished. but to fight and throw blows isn’t going to do anything but put a bigger wedge between the different races. if we don’t do something now it’s going to get worse. so much that the beating will start again

Comments are closed.