Jena 6 Case Study

In September 2007 more than 40,000 demonstrators descended on the small town of Jena, La. to protest unequal justice for the Jena Six, a case in which charges were brought against six black teens following a series of racially charged incidents sparked by the hanging of nooses in a public schoolyard. Facing South followed the case closely as it thrust a small central Louisiana town into the national spotlight and drew the eyes of the country to the lines of racial inequality still present in the modern-day South.The nooses were hung by white students after black students sat under a tree the white students apparently considered their own. The students who hung the nooses faced only a brief suspension from school and no criminal charges for their actions, sparking anger among the town's black residents. The racial tension led to a number of confrontations and fights between whites and blacks, with blacks consistently facing harsher punishment for their actions. In the case of the Jena Six, six black youths, at the time all students at Jena High school, were charged in December 2006 with beating a white schoolmate, Justin Barker. The black youths initially faced felony charges of attempted murder with potential fines of more than $90,000 and potential sentences as high as 20 years. 

The severity of the charges drew widespread international criticism and protest. A judge went on to reduce the charges against Carwin Jones, Jesse Ray Beard, Robert Bailey Jr., Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw to aggravated second-degree battery. Mychal Bell, the only one of the Jena Six to go to trial, pleaded guilty to second-degree battery as a juvenile in December 2007 and has since completed his period of 18-months in jail.

Last Friday the case -- which captured the imagination of a whole generation of black youth -- came to a final resolution. The five remaining Jena Six defendants -- Carwin Jones, Jesse Ray Beard, Robert Bailey Jr., Bryant Purvis and Theodore Shaw -- pleaded no contest to simple battery and agreed to fines and seven days of probation. 

Civil rights activists have pointed out that the case of the Jena Six shone a light on the miscarriages of justice that happen to black male youth across the country. As David Utter of the Southern Poverty Law Center said last Friday: "These things don't just happen in Louisiana." 

ColorOfChange.org, the online civil rights group that raised more than $275,000 for legal defense for the Jena Six, applauded the plea bargain. In a press statement on Friday the group said: 

[T]he plea deal marked an acknowledgement by officials that the Louisiana justice system initially treated the then-teenage boys too harshly, privileging white students' accounts of a schoolyard fight over those of black students in the largely segregated town of Jena. 

"Today's plea deal shows that the original charges in the case were unfair and vastly overblown," said James Rucker, ColorOfChange.org's executive director. "The story of the Jena 6 was an extreme example of what can happen when a justice system biased against black boys operates unchecked. But it's also an example of what can happen when hundreds of thousands of people across the country stand up to challenge unequal justice." 

All in all, most observers agree it was a quiet end for the young men who, in 2007, were at the center of one of the largest civil rights demonstrations in a generation and the subject of rallying cries such as "Free the Jena Six." All the young men are now moving on with their lives, their attorneys say. Purvis is attending Ranger Junior College in Ranger, Texas; Bailey plans to enroll in Grambling State University in the fall; Shaw is attending Delta State Community College in Monroe; Jones is attending Tyler Junior College in Texas; Beard is enrolled in Canterbury, a private prep school in Connecticut; and Bell is enrolled in a historically black college in Louisiana.

  Six black students in Jena, Louisiana, were charged with attempted murder for a beating administered to a white student.

 



  The appeal quoted above, which began circulating in in July 2007, is “true” in the basic sense that the events it describes did indeed take place. However, that is not to say it is entirely accurate, because it omits some very pertinent facts of the case.

At the end of a school assembly on 31 August 2006, a black student at Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana, jokingly asked the assistant principal of that institution if black students were allowed to sit in the shade of a tree in a square at the center of campus. The official’s response was that they could “sit anywhere you want.” The next morning, two nooses were found hanging from said tree.

Scott Windham, the high school’s principal, recommended that the three white teens responsible for festooning the tree with those nooses be expelled from Jena High School, but that recommendation was overruled by the school superintendent and board members, who instead opted to view the matter as a non-racially motivated “prank.” The three students responsible for placing the nooses were instead given three-day suspensions and temporary isolation.

Supposedly

as a consequence of how the matter was handled (that is, the nooses’ being judged a boyish prank rather than regarded as a serious threat), racial tensions flared at the school and in the surrounding community throughout the fall. (Investigating officials have since disclaimed a link between the placement of the nooses and subsequent violent incidents involving the school.) On 2006, a wing of the school was destroyed by a deliberately-set fire that destroyed several classrooms, offices and science labs. (Law enforcement officials have since determined that the fire was an act of arson perpetrated by students who wanted to destroy bad grade records and was not race-related.) There were also fights in and near the school, including one in which a black student was attacked by a group armed with beer bottles at a party predominantly attended by whites. (Only one person in that assault was criminally charged, and he with just a misdemeanor.)

In another incident that took place on 2 December 2006 at the Gotta-Go Grocery, a convenience store, a white Jena graduate reportedly pulled a pump-action shotgun on three black high school students when they left the shop. The three teens managed to wrestle the gun away from the man (who was injured in the process and was treated at a hospital for his injuries); they were later arrested and charged with second-degree robbery, theft of a firearm, and conspiracy to commit second-degree robbery. Accounts differ as to what happened in that incident, the white victim asserting he was attacked and robbed by the three teens, and the black teens asserting they were guilty of nothing more than defending themselves against a man with a gun. According to The Jena Times, eyewitness accounts provided by those unrelated to any of the four involved parties supported the victim’s story.

The “Jena 6” attack took place on 2006 at the high school. During a fight that broke out in the lunchroom between a white student and a black student, the white student was hit from behind, knocked out, then set upon by other black students who proceeded to kick and stomp his “lifeless” body as he lay unconscious on the floor. The victim, Justin Barker, spent about three hours in an emergency room being treated for injuries to his head and face.

That assault resulted in five of the black teens involved being charged, as adults, with attempted second-degree murder and given bonds ranging from $70,000 to $138,000. A sixth teen was charged as a juvenile. Two of the defendants had been part of the threesome involved in the Grocery incident, which is why their bonds were significantly higher: the bonds so assigned covered both sets of charges.

Mychal Bell, the only one of the Jena 6 to be tried so far, was convicted in June 2007 on a reduced charge of aggravated second-degree battery. (His conviction was later vacated by an appeals court ruling that he should have been tried as a juvenile.) The case against Bell was weighed by an all-white jury (because no blacks called for jury duty showed up on the day of jury selection), and there were allegations that the Bell’s original attorney did a poor job defending him.

Prosecutors in his case revealed that Bell had been convicted as a juvenile for attacking someone a year prior to the assault, then committed three more crimes while on probation for that one, which meant the verdict marked his fifth conviction for violent crimes. These prior acts were taken into account by the judge when the question arose of reducing Bell’s $90,000 bond.

In September 2007, Reed Walters, the district attorney of LaSalle Parish, explained the rationale behind the charges brought against the defendants:

Conjure the image of schoolboys fighting: they exchange words, clench fists, throw punches, wrestle in the dirt until classmates or teachers pull them apart. Of course that would not be aggravated second-degree battery, which is what the attackers are now charged with. (Five of the defendants were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder.) But that’s not what happened at Jena High School.

The victim in this crime, who has been all but forgotten amid the focus on the defendants, was a young man named Justin Barker, who was not involved in the nooses incident three months earlier. According to all the credible evidence I am aware of, after lunch, he walked to his next class. As he passed through the gymnasium door to the outside, he was blindsided and knocked unconscious by a vicious blow to the head thrown by Mychal Bell. While lying on the ground unaware of what was happening to him, he was brutally kicked by at least six people.

Imagine you were walking down a city street, and someone leapt from behind a tree and hit you so hard that you fell to the sidewalk unconscious. Would you later describe that as a fight?

Only the intervention of an uninvolved student protected Mr. Barker from severe injury or death. There was serious bodily harm inflicted with a dangerous definition of aggravated second-degree battery. Mr. Bell’s conviction on that charge as an adult has been overturned, but I considered adult status appropriate because of his role as the instigator of the attack, the seriousness of the charge and his prior criminal record.

  On 4 September 2007 prosecutors announced that charges against two more of the defendants, Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw, would be reduced from attempted second-degree murder to aggravated second-degree battery. On 2007 an appeals court vacated the second-degree battery conviction of Mychal Bell, ruling that the charges should have been brought in juvenile court. On 27 September 2007, Bell was released from jail on a $45,000 bond.


Donald Washington, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, asserted that a review of the Jena investigations indicated there was no link between the hanging of the nooses and the beating of a student three months later: “A lot of things happened between the noose hanging and the fight occurring, and we have arrived at the conclusion that the fight itself had no connection.”

LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, who oversaw the investigations into both incidents, echoed that sentiment:

Washington noted that after the noose-hanging incident at the start of the school year in August, school routines went forward as usual; there was no apparent lingering anger.

“There were three months of high school football in which they all played football together and got along fine, in which there was a homecoming court, in which there was the drill team, in which there were parades.”

Asked if the incidents had been blown out of proportion, he replied, “To a degree, I believe so, yes.”

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