Category: Jena

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

http:/ |  3415 Ainsworth Court Arlington, TX 76016

mobile: 806-729-7889  |  office: 817-457-0025  |
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With a Stroke of my Pen

This month, I wrote a song about the crisis in Jena, Louisiana. The first verse sets up a critical moment: when the District Attorney came to the high school to speak to the students after three nooses were hung in the courtyard:

Down in Jena, Louisiana,
There’s a tree in the square
There’s a fire at the schoolhouse,
There’s a noose in the air.
Down in Jena, Louisiana,
In the land of the free,
There’s a man at the courthouse
And he’s talking to me:
“Sunday morning, I’m a church mouse,
But Monday morning at the courthouse,
With a stroke of my pen,
I’ll make your whole world end,
And all the king’s horses,
And all the king’s men,
Won’t put your world
Back together again.

Why would a district attorney conclude that a flash of school violence in which no one was seriously injured translates into fifty years in prison without parole? Wednesday’s recusal hearing at the LaSalle Parish Courthouse provided some answers.

Attorneys for two of the Jena defendants are contending that DA Reed Walters should recuse himself because he is personally invested in these cases. Exhibit 1 was the nasty statement Walters published in the Jena Times days after the Jena 6 were arrested. “I will not tolerate this type of behavior,” Walters wrote. “To those who act in this manner, I tell you that you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law and with the harshest crimes that the facts justify. When you are convicted, I will seek the maximum penalty allowed by law. I will see to it that you never again menace the students at any school in this parish.”

These angry words take on a new significance when they are linked to comments Walters made at the Jena High School auditorium a few days after three nooses swung from a tree in the school courtyard. A black freshman, you will recall, had asked if black students could sit under an oak tree on the traditionally white side of the school courtyard. The remarkably light punishment was justified by the perception that the boys had committed an innocent prank free of racial overtones. The day after the punishment was announced, several black students “occupied” the space under the now infamous tree.

And who do you suppose took the lead in this spontaneous act of protest? You got it—the young black athletes now known as the Jena 6.

School authorities were terrified. Every police officer in LaSalle Parish was summoned to the school. Several dozen black students were standing under the tree surrounded by a ring of white students. A dozen police officers looked on helplessly until a school bell summoned the students to class.

To the white authority figures in Jena, Louisiana, the impromptu demonstration led by the Jena 6 had the feel of anarchy. The principal called the entire student body to the school auditorium for an unscheduled assembly. A sheriff’s deputy called Reed Walters and told him to get over to the High School immediately.

Reed Walters took the stand on two occasions during the June 13th recusal hearing. Asked to describe his emotional state the day of the school protest, Walters said he was frustrated and angry. “I had just been handed an aggravated rape case,” the DA explained; he was trying to decide whether to press for the death penalty. “I was really wrapped up in that,” he said.

In comparison to his important rape case, the disturbance at the high school was much ado about nothing. “I told the students I was tired of what was going on,” Walters testified. “I was tired of the problem they were having. I felt that this was something they needed to handle themselves.”

Here we reach the crux of the matter. If the student protest was a justifiable response to a bizarre and unjust disciplinary decision, Mr. Walters’ reaction is incomprehensible. But if the noose incident really was a childish prank, it follows logically that the Jena 6 and those who followed their lead were exploiting the situation as an excuse for making trouble. They weren’t really concerned about racism or equality, the argument goes—they were just a bunch of thugs who needed to be straightened out.

Everything Reed Walters said the day of the protest under the tree reflects precisely this attitude. “I would like to be your best friend,” he told the students; but I can be your worst enemy.”

Then, with a dramatic flourish, Walters brandished his pen like the sword of Damocles. “With a stroke of this pen,” he told the students, “I can take your life away!”

Everyone testifying at the June 13th hearing, Walters included, agreed that this statement was made—but who was the intended audience?

White students? Not at all—they were happy as clams with the situation and were in no mood to protest. Walters was talking to black students, in general—and to the Jena 6, in particular. He was telling them that if they continued to cause trouble, he would destroy them. His remarks in the Jena Times days after the Jena 6 were arrested in early December show that he was making good on a threat he had issued back in September.

Reed Walters suggested that the white and black students needed to work things out for themselves. They did. None of the tragic events that have placed Jena, Louisiana on the map would have taken place had Reed Walters kept his pen in his pocket and delivered a different speech. He could have called the nooses a hate crime. He could have denounced that crime and called for every authority figure in LaSalle Parish to follow his lead.

But, as a practical matter, Reed Walters had no choice but to wave his pen and issue threats. If the nooses constituted a hate crime he would have been forced to file charges against white students—a one-way ticket to political disaster. The white community had already decided to treat the noose incident as a harmless stunt and the DA had no choice but to follow their lead.

The assault at the school in December was a direct consequence of the DA’s bizarre speech in September. Reed Walters sowed the wind; Justin Barker and Robert Bailey reaped the whirlwind. Mr. Walters is prosecuting a crime produced and directed by Reed Walters.

Americans are tired of listening to the laments of poor people. There are no crimes of desperation, we say, just crimes of opportunity. America is a level playing field, so quit making excuses. And then we find three nooses dangling from an oak tree in Jena, Louisiana, or Camden Jew Jersey, or Tulia Texas . . . and we reach for our pens.