Ineffective Assistance of Counsel: What Blane Williams should have known

On Thursday, June 28, 2007, At the LaSalle Parish Courthouse in Jena, Louisiana, Mychal Bell was convicted of aggravated second degree assault and conspiracy to commit secondary degree aggravated assault. Mykal was convicted because jurors believed he had knocked a white student named Justin Barker unconscious with a single devastating blow to the head.

Mychal Bell was accused of participating in a conspiracy because his alleged victim was stomped by several other students as he lay on the ground. It was explained that the young black males who stomped Justin Barker were co-conspirators with Bell even if they had never agreed to a coordinated attack. According to law, because Bell’s single blow made the stomping possible, an informal conspiracy, or “combination” could be implied.

The alleged assault was “aggravated” because a dangerous weapon was used-namely tennis shoes. According to this reasoning, every fight
participant is guilty of aggravated assault unless he shows up naked. The law is designed to make it as easy as possible to put defendants away for as long as possible.

The Mychal Bell trial has attracted interest from around the globe-accounts have been published in South Africa, Russia, China, Australia and every flagship newspaper in America-with the curious exception of the New York Times. Correspondents invariably note that Jena has been the subject of public scrutiny since the morning in late August, 2006 when three nooses were found hanging from a tree in the high school square. The fact that Mychal Bell was tried by an all-white jury has fanned accusations of racism.

A gifted athlete and solid student with a promising future, Mychal Bell may be forty before he returns to the free world. Judge J.P. Mauffray will hand down his sentence on July 31st. Much has been said about the severity of the charges filed against the Jena 6, Mychal Bell and the co-conspirators. District Attorney Reed Walters originally accused the Jena 6 of attempted murder-charges sentences up to 100 years without parole. A worldwide outcry forced the prosecutor to back off a bit. Judge Mauffray’s sentence will
tell us how he views the proportionality issue.

But more basic questions abound. Is Mychal Bell guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Did he receive a fair trial? And did Blane Williams, Mr. Bell’s court appointed attorney, give the trial a moment’s thought before entering the courtroom?

I have grown accustomed to all-white juries convicting poor black defendants, but this trial was something new. When “ineffective assistance of counsel” is covered in law school classrooms, this case may become the standard illustration. Throughout the three-day trial you could hear jaws hitting the floor as Blane Williams stumbled through his ill-conceived defense of his client. Hardened journalists were left scratching their heads. This was supposed to be an important trial. Why then, was Mychal Bell’s attorney so ill-prepared?

It’s pretty simple, actually. Court appointed attorneys aren’t paid well enough in most jurisdictions to seriously research the cases they handle. Take a client to trial and you are almost sure to lose money. Some attorneys are willing to take the occasional financial hit in the interest of justice; others are not. Blane Williams wanted Mychal Bell to take a plea offer. Mychal refused. Williams had no choice but to take the case to trial-but he was determined to put no more work into this case than the law allowed. And the law, my friends, allows defense attorneys to do very little if they are so inclined. You get the kind of justice you can afford to pay for.

Reflections in the wake of the Mychal Bell trial

Partisan witnesses
* The ten student witnesses who testified at Mychal Bell’s trial were all white. In fact, most of them were part of a distinct minority within
the high school’s white student population who attended all-white schools in the country surrounding Jena until High School. (More on this below)
* Justin Cooper was the only witness at trial to testify that Mychal Bell kicked Justin Barker as the victim lay unconscious on the ground.
Since Justin Cooper was one of the boys who admitted to hanging the nooses at Jena High School at the beginning of the school year, he can hardly be seen as an objective or credible witness. Defense Attorney Blane Williams was apparently unaware of Cooper’s connection to the noose incident.
* Jessica Hooter was one of four trial witnesses who identified Mychal as the person who threw the first punch at Justin Barker. Two days after the assault occurred, Jessica was unable to identify the initial attacker. But as she explained at trial, “After I thought about it more, I remembered more.” In his closing remarks, Blane Williams never mentioned that she had embellished her earlier testimony. Perhaps he forgot.
* The single male juror graduated from High School with Justin Barker’s father. The tendency to sympathize with an old school buddy whosekid got punched and kicked in a one-sided assault is understandable. It also makes objectivity impossible.
* Midway through the trial, assault victim Justin Barker and his family were seen by ten witnesses (myself included) sharing a convivial meal with several of the students who had testified against Mychal Bell. This suggests that a number of “memory-enhancing” conversations about the incident have taken place between early December and late June. Jessica Hooter likely “remembered” that the unidentified attacker was Mykal Bell because this quickly became the orthodox story in the social circle she move in.

Ms. Martin’s list
* At trial, special education teacher Kristy Martin listed off the names of the boys who surrounded Justin Barker as if they were clear in her memory. Although she was forced to admit that she never saw a single student touch Justin Barker, Martin’s ability to name names seemed very convincing. Martin is the only witness thus far who has provided a list of attackers longer than three names.
* In a written statement, given immediately after the incident, Coach Wayne Spence states that he was taking names of rowdy students in the gym during the lunch hour. “I had a list that Ms. Martin obtained from me,” he wrote. This suggests that Kristy Martin specifically asked Spence for the list of names the day of the fight. This explains why she is the only witness to remember more than two or three members of the Jena 6. Most eye witnesses can’t identify a single assailant by name. Most of the students who gave eyewitness statements after the December 4 altercation at the school make references to “a bunch of black kids”.

The witness no one called
* Coach Benjy Lewis gave two statements immediately after the school incident in which he clearly states that Justin Barker was facing him when Malcolm Shaw (not Mychal Bell) struck Barker from behind. “I saw Malcolm Shaw hit Justin Barker with his right fist to the right side of Justin’s head, right around the temple,” Lewis wrote. “Justin went down face first, knocked out . . .” Most witnesses agree that a single punch knocked Barker out cold. The only adult who witnessed the punch says Mychal Bell didn’t throw it.
* In a signed statement given immediately after the altercation at the school, student Jesse Beard stated that moments after the assault Coach Manning asked him where Malcolm Shaw was.
* It isn’t hard to see why the prosecution didn’t call Lewis to the stand (his testimony would have devastated the state’s case); but how do we explain why defense attorney Blane Williams didn’t call the coach to testify?
* Several people (myself included) noticed Mychal Bell repeatedly handing his attorney pieces of eyewitness testimony during the trial. This suggests that Williams entered the courtroom utterly unprepared for trial.

The green jacket theory
* Two female students testified that the person who knocked Justin Barker cold was wearing a green jacket. Mychal Bell’s statement, given immediately after the incident, suggests that he was initially cleared of responsibility because he was wearing a black jacket. At trial, the “green jacket” witnesses were convinced that Mychal Bell was not the attacker-they knew Mychal and the guy in the green jacket was someone else.
* The “green jacket” identification means that we have at least three mutually contradictory eyewitness accounts of who struck Justin Barker: Mychal Bell, Malcolm Shaw, or an unidentified student in a green jacket.
* Both “green jacket” witnesses insist that Justin Barker was knocked cold, not by a punch to the temple, but by having his head slammed into a concrete bench. Coach Benjy Lewis says that Justin Barker was knocked cold from a punch from behind. Witnesses who name Mychal Bell as the attacker describe a face-to-face confrontation followed by a blow to the head that knocked Justin Barker out. Defense attorney Blane Williams never reflected on the evidence long enough to identify these obvious contradictions.

If Lewis is right; Bell is innocent
* The fact that Justin Barker cannot remember who hit him argues in favor of Coach Lewis’s blow-from-behind account. It must also be remembered that Lewis was the only adult who directly witnessed the assault. He was also the only non-partisan eye witness. If Lewis is telling the truth, the witnesses who identify Mychal Bell as the initial attacker are either confused or, like Jessica Hooter, they are victims of a false sense of concreteness produced by the continual retelling the story in the company of partisan friends.
* Most of the prisoners recently exonerated on the basis of unassailable DNA evidence were wrongfully convicted by confident
eyewitnesses. Memory doesn’t work like a photograph; recollections change dramatically with time. We often see what we want to see.
* All this contradictory evidence makes it impossible to identifyJustin Barker’s assailant with any confidence.
* All those identifying Mychal Bell were highly partisan observers clearly identified with one side of a longstanding and unresolved feud
between the “country” white students who hung the nooses in a tree at the high school and the black male athletes who were particularly outraged by this hate crime (see more on this below).
* On balance, the most persuasive testimony by far comes from Coach Lewis-and neither the prosecution nor the defense called Lewis to testify at Mychal Bell’s trial.

A chaotic scene
* In signed statements, several black and white eyewitnesses referred to students running to and from the scene of the assault. Justin Barker was clearly struck on the face and then intentionally kicked while he lay on the ground. However, it is impossible to determine which of Justin Barker’s bruises and abrasions were the result of intentional assault and which may have been the unintentional result of a panic-induced stampede. All witnesses agree that the scene was utterly chaotic with students moving wildly in every direction. Defense attorney Blane Williams never raised this obvious question.
* Several of the Jena 6 defendants freely admit that they were close to the altercation. This isn’t surprising when we realize that the shout of “fight” at a high school always brings students running to the scene.

“With a stroke of my pen”
* In early September, the three white students responsible for hanging nooses in a tree in the school courtyard were punished with a few days of in-school suspension. The noose incident was dismissed as a childish prank. The following day, black students staged a spontaneous protest rally under the tree where the nooses had been discovered. Several black male athletes took the lead in this protest-the same students who were eventually accused of attacking Justin Barker.
* The decision to treat the noose incident as a childish prank sparked a brief firestorm of media attention in which Jena school officials were frequently accused of racism.
* In early September, District Attorney Reed Walters addressed an emergency school assembly called in response to the spontaneous student protest. With a dozen fully uniformed police officers in the auditorium, Walters warned protest organizers that with a stroke of his pen he could take their lives away. Walters has admitted under oath that he made this remark. His words were not aimed at the entire student body, nor at black students in general-he was speaking to the student athletes we now call the Jena 6. After the demonstration under the tree, Robert Bailey, Carwin Jones, Mychal Bell, Theodore Shaw, Jesse Beard and Bryant Ray Purvis became

A descending spiral of violence
* Evidence suggests that some teachers and school administrators were empowered by Mr. Walters’ “stroke of my pen” remark. Defendants report that in the wake of the school assembly, several teachers became increasingly strict and adversarial in relation to the boys responsible for associating Jena High School with Jim Crow racism. It appears that some students responded to this change in attitude by withholding respect and acting out in ways that encouraged an even more authoritarian teacher response. Discipline referrals for the Jena 6 skyrocketed during the fall semester.

* In the period between Mr. Walter’s “stroke of my pen” threat in September and the assault on Justin Barker in early December, a series of physical altercations played out between the Jena 6 and the circle of boys who supported the hanging of the nooses. The white students had attended all-white schools in the countryside prior to coming to the integrated high school campus. They felt reassured by the segregated school courtyard and were intimidated by the suggestion that black students could sit wherever they wanted. Hence the nooses.
* The laughably light discipline handed down for this “childish prank” was perceived, correctly, as a triumph for students wishing to preserve a segregated school square.

A fire, a fight, and a firearm
* In signed statements, several white and black students mentioned a series of verbal altercations during the lunch hour preceding the attack on Justin Barker. The trash-talking was directly related to a fight at the Fair Barn three days earlier. On that occasion, Robert Bailey and a few of his friends were invited to an all-white student party by some of their white friends. When Robert entered the building he was punched in the face by a 22 year-old white male. In seconds, Robert was assaulted with beer bottles, punches and kicks in a virtual mirror image of the altercation at the high school three days later. The only differences were that the identify of the instigator in the Fair Barn incident was undisputed and that Robert remained conscious after the initial blow and was thus able to minimize the impact of the attack.
* The following morning, Robert Bailey and two of the friends who had come to his aid during the Fair Barn assault were leaving a local
convenience store when they encountered one of the country white males who had jumped Robert the night before. Fearing retaliation, the boy retreated to his truck and pulled out a pump-action, pistol-grip shotgun that looks like something the Terminator might have fancied. When Robert and his friends wrestled the weapon away from their would-be assailant they were charged with assault and theft. Once again, Jena’s New Jim Crow regime was reinforced.
* It is not unusual for residents of rural LaSalle Parish to drive around with firearms in their trucks. On May 10, 2007, Justin Barker was
arrested for bringing a rifle to school in his vehicle. A thorough search probably would have turned up several more illegal firearms in the school parking lot.
* The violent assault at the Fair Barn, the convenience store incident, and the assault at the school followed in the wake of a traumatic
school fire in late Novermber. Everyone associated with the school was in a state of shock akin to post traumatic stress syndrome. Concerned by the wave of violence, several teachers asked administrators not to reopen the school the Monday morning of the assault.

Running his mouth
* Student statements suggest that the student who attacked Justin Barker was responding to taunts that Robert Bailey “had his butt kicked” at the Fair Barn. In the course of this verbal jousting, several students report that Justin Barker “got up in Mychal’s face” and gave Mychal the finger. Tony Knapp, one of three boys who admitted to hanging nooses earlier in the school year, was also involved in this lunch hour altercation. At trial, District Attorney Reed Walters created the misleading impression that Barker was attacked by black thugs looking for a random white victim. He knew better.
* Several eyewitnesses recall that the initial punch was preceded by the shouted words, “This will teach you to run your mother f***ing mouth.” This statement, repeated by too many witnesses to be seriously doubted, makes no sense apart from the trash talking described in student statements.

The sins of the fathers
* This background information demonstrates that the black male students who attacked Justin Barker were bound to a steadily escalating chain of violence and counter-violence.
* This spiral of action and reaction was initiated by the September decision of school administrators to treat the noose incident as a childish prank. When Reed Walters threatened the Jena 6 with life imprisonment if they didn’t relinquish their constitutional right to denounce injustice, the boys were left with no legitimate avenue of protest. In the end, immature white and black males were left to their own devices. The consequences were as predictable as they were tragic.
* The ultimate responsibility for the violence at Jena High School lies at the feet of public officials who refused to acknowledge a hate crime
for what it was. The sins of the fathers are now being visited upon the children.


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Mykal Bell found guilty on all charges

Mykal Bell has just been found guilty of aggravated second degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second degree battery. This verdict became a foregone conclusion the moment defense attorney Blane Williams wrapped up his closing arguments. “Mr. Williams made a lot of comments,” DA Reed Walters told the all-white jury, “but none of them were directed at the evidence.” Unfortunately, Mr. Walters’ assessment was bang on target.

There was no indication that Blane Williams gave any meaningful thought to his closing. Mr. Walters has been honing his closing arguments for months now, and it showed. Williams has done nothing but angle for a plea bargain, and, tragically, that also showed.

Everything hinged on whether the three witnesses who identified Mykal Bell as the student who firsdt struck Justin Barker were more credible than the witnesses who saw it differently. When you have one group of witnesses saying Mykal was the hitman, a second group saying he wasn’t, and a third group saying they witnessed the altercation but can’t say for sure who threw the first punch, the case for reasonable doubt should be a no-brainer. You don’t have to argue that the “Mykal-done-it” witnesses are lying. You merely suggest that there is no empirical way to determine who threw the first punch. Since witnesses on both sides of the issue are equally credible, and since many eyewitnesses came away confused, no final verdict is possible. Sometimes you simply have to say, “I don’t know,” and walk away. In the legal system that should translate into a not guilty verdict.

Mr. Williams could have compared the conflicting testimony to the contradictory reports parents often receive from two feuding children. If there is no way of determining the truth, and if both children are equally credible (or lacking in credibility) practical agnosticism is the only sane policy. To take sides in such a situation would be sheer folly.

The jury in Jena would have understood that argument. Unfortunately, it was never made. Even worse, Mr. Williams defended his decision to call no defense witnesses by arguing (in casual conversation) that the white jury would have questioned the veracity of black school kids. This may have been true; but, hey, let’s give these folks a chance.

I do not blame the jurors for this gross miscarriage of justice. Mykal Bell was done in by a conspiracy perpetrated by an unholy Trinity of legal professionals: a judge, a district attorney, and a conveniently incompetent defense attorney. It was in the best professional interests of Mr. Mauffray, Mr. Walters and Mr. Williams to dispense with this case outside the courtroom. Mykal Bell spoiled their plans and has now paid dearly for his insolence.

Sentencing in this case will be postponed until July 31st. Meanwhile, the trial of Theo Shaw waits in the wings. Once again, we have a defendant represented by an incompetent, uncommitted court appointed attorney. Blane Williams didn’t help Mr. Shaw by his repeated insistence that the other defendants in this alleged conspiracy are all guilty as hell.

I end this diatribe (written in the heat of passion, I admit) with a word of challenge to the usual suspects in the criminal justice reform community. It is generally impossible to get attorneys from the ACLU, the NAACP, the Legal Defense Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the various innocent projects to represent indigent black defendants at the pre-conviction stage. These cases are considered “low-impact” and therefore low priority. Reform groups with staff lawyers prefer civil rights suits filed on behalf of wrongfully convicted (and unambiguously exonerated) defendants. There are a number of arguments advanced for this policy; but what just happened in a Jena, Louisiana courtroom exposes the tragic limitations of an outmoded strategy. Poor defendants have nowhere to turn prior to trial. Groups like Friends of Justice can attract media (if we’re lucky), but finding pro bono legal representation is a much harder sell. The criminal justice reform community needs to re-think its commitment to post-conviction (and often post-exoneration) intervention.

I need to rush off to a post-fiasco meeting with the defendants and their families, so I will have to cut this short. I will try to write at least one more report before returning to Texas.

Alan Bean

Executive Director, Friends of Justice



1. Send a donation to Friends of Justice to support our organizing in Jena. Make checks to “Friends of Justice” and make a note that it’s for the “Jena initiative”. Our address is 507 N. Donley Ave, Tulia TX 79088.

2. Sign up for our Action Updates. Click the link on the right-hand side of our website, and respond to the confirmation email. We’ll contact you with further news and opportunities to take action.

The Defense Rests

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.

Alan Bean


1. Send a donation to Friends of Justice to support our organizing in Jena. Make checks to “Friends of Justice” and make a note that it’s for the “Jena initiative”. Our address is 507 N. Donley Ave, Tulia TX 79088.

2. Sign up for our Action Updates. Click the link on the right-hand side of our website, and respond to the confirmation email. We’ll contact you with further news and opportunities to take action.

Deadly tennis shoes and legal fatalism


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


3415 Ainsworth Court Arlington, TX 76016
mobile: 806-729-7889 
office: 817-457-0025

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AP story on Jena

This AP story on Jena has been picked up coast to coast, including leading Texas papers like the Houston Chronicle.

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June 26, 2007, 7:01PM
Charges reduced for student in La. fight

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.

Democracy Denied

This is Lydia Bean, writing from Texas. I just heard from the defendant’s families in Jena–they tried to hold a protest on the courthouse steps this morning, but they were told that the court had gotten an injunction to prevent them from protesting. The Louisiana ACLU is looking into the legality of this claim. In the meantime, the word is that the jury is shaping up to be all white and all elderly–just the kind of jury that you can count on to sentence young black men to the maximum. Stay tuned.

Jena story heats up


Reed Walters has been praying that Mykal Bell would take a plea bargain and the clutch of stories appearing around the world demonstrate why. Monday’s dramatic hearing is being reported in Russia’s Pravda, in South Africa, France, and across the nation. Below, I have pasted Howard Witt’s initial follow-up to his groundbreaking article in the Chicago Tribune. An AP story has also been written (see Google link at the bottom of this post) and is popping up in longer and shorter versions across the country. In short, interest in this trial is remarkably high. CNN aired its Jena segment on Paula Zahn’s NOW Monday evening–the first nationally televised coverage to appear on this story in America. CBS News is also interested.

Mykal Bell is still facing serious charges. As Witt’s article notes, aggravated second degree murder requires the use of a weapon–and a fist doesn’t rate as a weapon in the state of Louisiana. Undoubtedly, DA Walters has a creative prosecutorial strategy in mind.

Mykal Bell isn’t the only person on trial this week: Reed Walters and the little town of Jena also stand before the bar of justice. Whatever the outcome of this trial, Mr. Walters and his supporters will not emerge unscathed–nor should they. The nooses hung in the school courtyard back in late August will receive hardly a mention in the courtroom (Judge Mauffray has already ruled the noose incident legally irrelevant); but the media conflagration is fanned by the bewildering disparity between Jena’s mild response to a hate crime and the community’s inexplicable over-reaction to a violent altercation at the high school in which no one was seriously injured. The only criminal charge that can be sustained in these cases is simple misdemeanor battery. If the forty-some eyewitness accounts of the incident at the school are an accurate indication, the testimony flowing from the witness chair this week will be riddled with contradictions and inconsistencies. Stay tuned, folks; we’re in for a rough ride.

Alan Bean

Friends of Justice

(806) 995-3353

(806) 729-7889

Hear an mp3 recording of “Sitting on the Wall”, a song I wrote about Jena, Louisiana.




Charge reduced in ‘Jena 6’ case

Change made on day jury was to be picked

By Howard Witt
Tribune senior correspondent
Published June 26, 2007

HOUSTON—The district attorney prosecuting a racially charged beating case in the small Louisiana town of Jena abruptly reduced attempted-murder charges Monday against a black high school student accused of attacking a white student, drawing cautious praise from civil rights leaders who contend the charges were excessive and part of a pattern of uneven justice in the town.

Mychal Bell, 16, a former Jena High School football star, and five other black students had been facing the potential of up to 100 years in prison if convicted of attempted murder, conspiracy and other charges for the December beating of the white student, who was knocked unconscious but not hospitalized. The incident capped months of escalating racial tensions at the high school that began after several white youths hung nooses from a tree in the school courtyard in a taunt aimed at blacks.

But as jury selection was about to begin in Bell’s case Monday, District Atty. Reed Walters reduced the charges to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery, which together carry a maximum of 22 years in prison. Walters, who is prosecuting Bell as an adult, also offered the teenager a plea agreement including a suspended sentence, which Bell’s father said the youth rejected.

Trials for the other five accused in the case have been delayed, and it was not clear whether Walters intended to reduce the charges against them as well. Walters did not speak to reporters in Jena or return calls seeking comment.

The case against the “Jena Six,” as the defendants have come to be called by their supporters, received national notice after it was featured in a May 20 Tribune report that detailed how racial animus had divided the mostly white central Louisiana town of 3,000 and erupted into repeated incidents of violence between blacks and whites.

“It certainly looks like the district attorney responded to the scrutiny the media has brought to this case,” said Alan Bean, a civil rights activist in Tulia, Texas, who, along with representatives of the ACLU and the NAACP, has been sharply critical of the charges against the black youths. “I don’t think he’s gone far enough in reducing the charges, but we’re certainly in a better place than we were.”

Bell’s father, Marcus Jones, said Monday that even though his son has been jailed since December and unable to post $90,000 bail, he preferred to take his case to a jury rather than plead guilty to a felony.

“The DA is trying to use my son as a scapegoat for these ridiculous charges,” Jones said. “He knows there’s no proof showing that my son and those other kids were trying to kill that boy. It was a simple high school fight. How can you turn that into attempted murder?”

Darrell Hickman, an attorney for one of the other youths charged in the case, said he expected the charges against the other defendants would eventually be reduced as well. And he asserted that even the reduced charges would be hard to prove.

“I think the district attorney is still overreaching,” Hickman said. “The new charge is aggravated second-degree battery, which requires use of a weapon. There’s no evidence that any weapon was involved.”

Google News Alert for: Jena, Louisiana,

Trial set for 2 charged with attempted murder after school fight
International Herald Tribune – France
AP JENA, Louisiana: Five black students are facing attempted second-degree murder charges for beating a white student, the climax of months of racial
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New song about Jena

Alan Bean wrote this song, “Sitting on the Wall,” about recent events in Jena, LA.  Hear an mp3 of the song’s world premiere, which Alan and Lydia Bean performed during their workshop at Sojourner’s Pentecost 2007 Conference in Washington, D.C.

“Sitting on the Wall” by Alan Bean

Update from Jena, Louisiana: CNN’s NOW program to air feature

It was high drama at the LaSalle Parish courthouse today. Those of you who have been following this story will remember that six defendants have been charged with second degree attempted murder after a violent altercation at Jena High School left a white student unconscious. No one sustained serious injuries in the fight, but District Attorney, Reed Walters, seemed determined to put the perpetrators behind bars for between 25 and 100 years. Mykal Bell, the defendant accused of throwing the first punch at Jena High School in early December, was expected to accept a plea offer today. Mykal has been talking to his mother (who is in favor of any deal that gets her boy back to the free world) and a father who fully understands how deep a hole DA Reed Walters has dug for himself. Mykal has now been incarcerated for half a year, but he hasn’t lost his pride. Asked if he was willing to plead guilty to the reduced charge of aggravated assault, the star athlete shook his head and said he wanted to go to trial. This was not the way the script was written. According to eyewitnesses, Reed Walters could be heard in the hallway berating Mykals’s mother. “He changed his mind,” she reportedly told the DA, “what could I do?”

So this case goes to trial, beginning with jury selection tomorrow. All defendants now face the reduced charge of aggravated assault. This is a partial victory for Friends of Justice, the ACLU of Louisiana, and the Jena chapter of the NAACP–the coalition that his been calling for the District Attorney to back away from the jaw-dropping charges he initially filed. But aggravated assault is still a felony charge, and even if the defendants escape with probated sentences their lives will never be the same. Any minor slip-up could land them behind bars. A college education will become illusive because felons are denied all forms of federal assistance. Most decent jobs are unattainable for felons. And so it goes. We are calling the District Attorney to drop the charges to simple battery–the same charge filed against the boy who attacked defendant Robert Bailey at a dance short days before the incident at the school. Then there is the issue of the all-white jury that will almost certainly be selected tomorrow. We aren’t where we need to be, but we have traveled miles from where we were when this fight began–and in the right direction.

Serious questions are raised by reports that Reed Walters initiated contact with at least two members of Mykal Bell’s family. I have been told that Mykal’s mother and grandmother have been told that Mykal may spend the rest of his life behind bars if he doesn’t take a plea. In theory, prosecutors are supposed to communicate with defendants indirectly, through a defense attorney. Threatening a defendant’s family members comes perilously close to threatening a defendant. Prosecutors, however, are rarely held to strict standards of accountability. So long as they can keep a case out of the public eye, Chubby Checker’s famous question applies: “how low can you go?” The answer, in most cases, is: “As low as I wanna go.” District attorneys are rarely sanctioned, no matter how egregious their behavior. Things change, however, when the media pays attention–as we have recently seen in the Duke Lacrosse case.

Media attention is again riveted on this central Louisiana town. The Chicago Tribune is considering an update, a second TV network form Britain is paying attention, and CNN will broadcast its Jena feature on Paula Zahn’s NOW program this evening between 7:00 and 8:00 (central). This is probably just the beginning. Reed Walters has helped himself by backing away from the bizarre charges he initially filed; but once the media genii is out of the bottle, it’s hard to stuff him back in.

Alan Bean
Friends of Justice

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