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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.

The Jena 6 story in a nutshell: Report and Recommendations

Media coverage of the Jena story was inspired by a brief narrative compiled by Alan Bean, director of Friends of Justice (see link below).  The information contained in this document was culled from interviews with dozens of black and white Jena residents, newspaper accounts, eye witness statements and court documents.  Dr. Bean’s account shows how official tolerance for racial hatred sparked a steadily escalating string of violent encounters between white and black students.   The accuracy of this information has since been confirmed by other investigators.

Jena 6 Summary


Friends of Justice is currently investigating other cases demonstrating systemic issues within the criminal justice system.  You can be a part of our exciting work by making a donation to Friends of Justice.  You can use the “donate” tab on our home page for PayPal donations.  Checks should be made out to Friends of Justice and should be mailed to:

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To contact Friends of Justice by phone call: mobile: 806-729-7889  office: 817-457-0025 We can be reached via email at:


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Black Gold

This little throwaway story is far more significant than it seems. We learn that Florida-based Geo Group has decided to triple the size of the LaSalle Detention Facility in soon-to-be-famous Jena, Louisiana, even though no one is currently operating the facility. Geo Group is confident that the rapid expansion of the prison system in Louisiana will bring a buyer its way sooner or later. This is reminiscent of a prison-building scam that included former Texas Governor, Mark White and the Graham brothers (low-life street hustlers from Houston) that produced small and ephemeral headlines back in the 90s. Six private prisons were built on the assumption that Texas would pick up on the private prison craze. Instead, George W. Bush and Ann Richards got into I’m-tougher-on-crime-than-ya’ll food fight and Texas built 105 new prisons housing 108,000 new prisoners over a five-year period. One of these prisons was built just west of Tulia, Texas. It stood empty for several years before being picked up by the state of Texas for 50 cents on the dollar.

The lock-up in Jena has a troubling history that sheds considerable light on the plight (note the internal rhyme) of the Jena 6. The prison started out as a juvenile detention facility, but was closed in 2000 after charges of racism and sexual harassment created a minor scandal. The prison was re-opened just after Katrina to house overflow prisoners (so to speak) from New Orleans. Once again, the facility was shut down after . . . you guessed it: more allegations of brutality and overt racism. But Geo Group remains confident that the unit will shortly be filled to overflowing with young black males. You begin to understand why the Jena 6 face capital charges over a school fight that resulted in no serious injuries. Mass incarceration may not be good for Louisiana, and it sure ain’t good for America–but it’s sure as heck good for Geo Group: share prices have almost tripled in the course of the past year. The real product being marketed here is poor black males. I wish I was kidding folks, but I’m not.

Alan Bean

Don’t Let the Nooses Fool You: The South is Us

Lydia Bean, founding member of Friends of Justice, blogs on Jena at Foresight:

It wasn’t surprising that race relations in Jena, Louisiana deteriorated after white students hung three nooses in a tree at the high school, to warn black students not to sit in the “white” side of the schoolyard. After this hate crime went unpunished by the school principal, white and black kids got into several fights around town. The white residents of Jena weren’t indignant about the nooses, but they were indignant about black kids defending themselves from white racial attacks. After a fight between black and white kids, only the black kids were prosecuted—for attempted murder.

The blogosphere has exploded with interest in this case, after the faith-based organization Friends of Justice worked to attract attention. But much coverage of this incident shows a fundamental misunderstanding of both progressive identity and the nature of the problem. Many bloggers across the nation are clicking their tongues about Jena as a vestige of the old Jim Crow, and despairing that progressive politics could ever flourish there, in that muggy, exotic, backward place we call “The South”. What progressives don’t realize is that the South is Us. Repeat after me, progressives: The South is Us. The progressive movement shouldn’t think of itself as a beleaguered minority of intellectuals who hide out in Berkeley and New York City, rolling their eyes at those backward yokels in “The South.” That’s a recipe for bad strategic thinking and in-group dogmatism. And it also misunderstands the causes of racial inequality in our criminal justice system.

Because there’s nothing exotic about Jena, Louisiana, except that the white kids got away with hanging three nooses in the public school. The sad truth is that young black men are routinely demonized by police and prosecutors all over America. Our nation has set up a direct pipeline from high school to prison for young poor black men, so that we have more black men in prison than in college. And for the most part, nobody cares unless someone does something exotic like hang up a noose. Without the nooses, nobody would have cared if these young men had been prosecuted on bad evidence on a petty charge, and thrown away for life like so many of their generation. Jena isn’t about the old Jim Crow, it’s about the New Jim Crow. (more…)

The New Jim Crow and the New Groupthink

Some of the most insightful commentary on the significance of the Jena story appears in a blog I came across this morning. A few months ago, a local Jena pastor described his home town as a racist backwater. Recent events have forced the Rev. Eddie Thompson to eat those words. Now he is defending his home town against Yankee “Carpetbaggers” (from Texas and New Orleans) who are distorting the story. The Rev. Eddie has fallen victim to the sort of groupthink that emerges when small towns circle the wagons. Fortunately, a contributor to “Blogher” knows the Rev. Eddie personally. Her response to his about-face show a tremendous depth of insight. I encourage you to scroll through the entire string of posts–you will learn something. At least, I did.

Stories like Tulia, Texas and Jena, Lousiana are revelatory; the elements of ambiguity evoke an enormous range of response. People see what they want to see, what they choose to see. Some, like me, see a clear line of cause and effect running from the nooses hanging in a tree at Jena High School to the fight outside the gymnasium doors. Others see the fight at the school as an isolated occurrence hermetically sealed from past events. The implication is that the black assailants at the school picked a white kid at random and beat him within an inch of his life. Why? Because they are anti-social monsters who have no regard for human life. This is the way the story was originally presented in the Jena Times.

People who think this way inevitably play down the significance of the nooses. Racism was not involved–not at all. The first theory I heard was that the noose-boys had just watched Lonesome Dove on cable and were enamored of the image of three nooses hanging in a tree. Now we are told that the nooses were hung because the Jena Giants were about to face a neighboring football team called the Mustangs. It is admitted that the nooses appeared in a tree on the traditionally white side of the school square a day after a black student had asked if he could sit under that tree. But that was just a coincidence. Several Jena residents have even suggested that the black boy who made the request was being unnecessarily provocative. Denial this deep is alarmning.

It is likely that the Jena 6 will face an all-white jury. With local opinion cleanly divided along racial lines, Mykal Bell and his co-defendants will not be tried by a jury of their peers.

But this isn’t just about Jena, any more than the Tulia fight was just about Tulia. This is about the way America treats low-status defendants. Jena and Tulia explain why our prisons have been filling up with young black males from the bottom rungs of the social ladder. Jena is about the New Jim Crow.

Donate to Friends of Justice and be a part of this civil rights revolution in Texas and Louisiana!

UK is outraged, Jena still needs convincing

Someone from the Agence France-Presse (AFP) has cobbled together a Jena story based loosely on Tom Mangold’s reporting in the London Observer. Mangold’s Jena documentary aired on the BBC this evening. As soon as the closing credits began to roll my inbox filled up with outraged emails from all over the UK.

You might also want to check out the Mother Jones blog where you will find another unattributed Jena expose. That’s fine. We just want to get as many people as possible thinking about the implications of this story.

Speaking of which: consider this piece from the Alexandria Town Talk: The story itself is unexceptional, but the 23 (and counting) reader comments that follow are deeply disturbing–to me at least. Local white residents seem convinced that the Jena 6 stomped Justin Barker half to death–even though it is well known that, later that day, Barker showed up at a ring ceremony. I am not trying to justify what was by all accounts a serious attack. But I am troubled by the lack of proportion. Young men could be old men by the time they get out of prison for a school fight in which no one sustained serious injuries. If members of the Jena 6 were involved in the fight (and the June 25th trial should shed light on that question) they weren’t trying to kill anyone; they were trying to teach a rival a lesson. Conversely, when a gang of white kids jumped Robert Bailey at the Fair Barn a few days earlier, they were trying to get a point across (don’t insinuate yourself into all-white social functions). In both cases, friends joined in after the first punch was thrown as an act of solidarity. In neither case was there any serious intention of causing lasting bodily harm.

Both violent incidents are serious, and both merit a disciplinary response. But attempted second degree murder? Twenty-five years to life in prison without parole? We throw lives away in America with scarcely a thought–so long as the lives belong to poor people of color. I spent half an hour on the phone this afternoon with a young Latino who told me his brother will die in prison. At the age of fourteen the young man started slinging crack to local addicts so he could buy fancy running shoes and $80 shirts. At twenty he was sentenced to life in prison. The man was a drug dealer–sure enough. But he was a low-level, non-violent punk who may eventually have made good if he had been sent down for five years. But they gave him a life sentence, so we’ll never know. Again, where is the sense of proportion?

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

Donate to Friends of Justice and be a part of this civil rights revolution in Texas and Louisiana!

Deep South Didn’t get the Civil Rights Memo

 The drama unfolding in Jena Louisiana has spawned two high-profile stories: one, by Howard Witt of the Chicago Tribune; the other, by Tom Mangold, in the London Observer.  Both stories have entered the Blogosphere and have been reprinted by the Baltimore Sun and even an English language newspaper in China.

The civil rights movement convulsed America for a full decade by forging a sturdy alliance between high status black leaders and white liberals. White conservatives screamed that the Jim Crow laws were about states rights. But black opinion leaders found these laws were humiliating and once white liberals were persuaded that Jim Crow and justice were incompatible, they became desperate to dissociate themselves from these loathsome statutes. According to the official story line, the civil rights steamroller plowed through the states rights facade in a glorious march to liberty and justice for all.

The Jena story suggests that certain pockets of Deep South America didn’t get the civil rights memo. That is certainly the burden of the Jena stories published yesterday. Mr. Witt’s headline reads, “Racial demons rear heads.” Mr. Mangold takes things a step further with his “Racism goes on trial again in America’s Deep South.” The Jena story gives white Southerners yet another opportunity to voice a clear and unequivocal “no” to the dismal legacy of Jim Crow.

Would this story be attracting so much media attention if it had nothing to offer but an addled DA over-reacting to a school fight—even if the hapless defendants were facing multi-decade sentences without parole? I suspect not. So thank God for the nooses hanging in the school yard! These vile reminders of lynch mob morality have attracted attention to an all-too familiar story that rarely gets much attention. Jena is being covered as a story about the persistence of the old Jim Crow, but it is much more than that. Jena is also a story about the new Jim Crow: the manipulation of the criminal justice system to deprive low status black people of basic justice.

The trial of the first three Jena defendants, originally scheduled to begin this morning, has been continued until sometime next month. DA Reed Walters had been trying to get one of the defendants to plead guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence. This would have made Walters’ job much easier, but no one took the bait. Then a defense attorney filed a motion to have Mr. Walters recused from this case. Initial indications are that Judge Mauffray has scheduled a hearing for mid-June to determine if Mr. Walters should recuse himself from this case. That ought to be as interesting as the trial itself.

I hope the media doesn’t get tired of waiting for the wheels of justice to grind. I got a call from the BBC yesterday asking if they could interview me later in the day. I told them that would be fine, but they needed to know the trial had been continued. That was the end of that. But the delay won’t stop Tom Mangold’s documentary on Jena from airing on BBC 2 this Thursday evening; nor, I suspect, will it keep flagship publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post from getting a piece of the Jena action.

The lull in the action may frustrate the press, but it is good news for the defendants. The more attention this story attracts the harder it will be for Reed Walters to work his usual magic before an all-white jury. If you would like more background on this story please give me a call.

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Looking for Justice in Jena, Louisiana


This Jena story by Jordan Flaherty is being widely circulated by newsletters like Counterpunch. Flaherty lets the families have their say and provides some helpful historical background to the unfolding tragedy in Jena. It now appears that three defendants, Robert Bailey, Mychal Bell and Theo Shaw will be going to trial on May 21st. Jason was with us for our rally last week and has clearly put a great deal of work into this project. I particularly appreciate the recognition he gives Friens of Justice. I generally see myself as a stage director trying to frame a story for others; as such, I don’t usually appear as an actor. Occasionally, however, it’s nice to have our efforts recognized. I am currently in the Dallas area making contacts and telling the Friends of Justice story. I spoke at City Church last night and made some amazing contacts. Friends of Justice is seriously considering a move to the Dallas Metro area sometime this summer. I’ll keep you posted as our plans evolve.

Alan Bean

Donate to Friends of Justice and be a part of our movement!