A defendant in the racially-charged Jena 6 case in Louisiana has been arrested for assault after an altercation at the suburban Dallas high school he is now attending, potentially complicating his legal defense in Jena and dispiriting some of his supporters.
Bryant Purvis, 19, was arrested Wednesday in Carrollton, Texas, and charged with misdemeanor assault after an incident with another student at Hebron High School, Carrollton police said. Purvis was released in lieu of $1,000 bond on Thursday and suspended for three days from the school, where he enrolled as a senior after moving to the area to live with a relative.
Purvis' attorney, Darrell Hickman, characterized the assault as a "minor shoving incident" and said it involved a student whom Purvis believed had vandalized his car a few days before. A police affidavit accompanying an arrest warrant alleged that Purvis choked the student and pushed his head into a bench, injuring the victim's eye.
The new arrest could complicate ongoing plea bargain negotiations over the Jena case with LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, Hickman said. Purvis is one of six black defendants Walters initially charged with attempted murder for beating a white student at Jena High School in December 2006, in a fight that capped months of racial tensions in the town.
The charges were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery after the Jena case drew criticism from national civil rights leaders, who contended that the justice system in the small town was biased against blacks. More than 20,000 demonstrators marched through Jena last September in support of the Jena 6 defendants and their case was one of several last year that launched what activists regarded as a new civil rights movement.
The first Jena defendant to face trial, Mychal Bell, pleaded guilty in December to a juvenile charge of second-degree battery and received a sentence of 18 months in juvenile detention. Purvis' case is set for trial in late March.
The Texas arrest "doesn't help his case in Jena, that's obvious," Hickman said. "From what [Purvis] told me, I can understand him losing his temper. We all lose our temper every now and then. But we're in the process of negotiations with Reed Walters. And what we've been asking for, probably Reed will be less inclined to give it to me now."
Purvis' arrest is the latest in a series public embarrassments for the Jena defendants, who last summer attracted the sympathies of more than 300,000 petition signers and donations of more than $500,000 to their legal defense fund.
Purvis and another Jena defendant, Carwin Jones, posed like rap stars at the Black Entertainment Television Hip Hop Awards in October, where they presented a music award and received an ovation from the audience. Jena defendant Robert Bailey Jr. posted pictures of himself on a Myspace page with a wad of $100 bills stuffed in his mouth. And questions arose over the accounting for some of the donated legal funds controlled by the Jena 6 families after they declined to say how they were spending the money.
Nevertheless, the Jena case remains important, said Mervyn Marcano, spokesman for Color of Change, an Internet-based civil rights group of nearly 400,000 members that raised more than $200,000 for the Jena defendants.
"It's sort of a pop culture touchstone of 2007 for a lot of black people," Marcano said, adding that he hoped that Purvis' latest arrest would not detract from the larger issues of equal justice raised by the Jena case.
"These kids are still juveniles, so I'm not surprised that they will get into scuffles and things of that nature," Marcano said. "These kids are not supposed to be angels. They are supposed to have equal access to fair treatment from the criminal justice system, and they will continue to be teenagers while we continue to fight for that."