With the prospect of a major national civil rights protest looming next week in the central Louisiana town of Jena, a state appeals court on Friday abruptly vacated the felony conviction of a black teenager accused of beating a white student in a case fraught with racial tensions.
Louisiana's 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, acting on an emergency defense appeal, reversed the aggravated second-degree battery conviction of Mychal Bell, 17, ruling that the youth had been tried improperly as an adult in a case that has raised allegations of unequal justice in the small, mostly white town.
Last week, the judge who presided over Bell's trial in June, LaSalle Parish District Judge J.P. Mauffray, vacated a conspiracy conviction against the youth for the same reason, but inexplicably let the more serious battery conviction stand. Now the local district attorney, Reed Walters, must decide whether to refile the entire case in juvenile court.
Walters initially charged Bell and five other black teens, who have come to be called the "Jena 6," with attempted murder after the white student was beaten and knocked unconscious at Jena High School last December. The white student suffered cuts and bruises but was treated and released from a local hospital.
Walters later reduced the charges to aggravated second-degree battery, contending at Bell's trial -- the first case to go to court -- that the tennis shoes Bell was wearing constituted a dangerous weapon.
Walters said in a statement Friday that he intended to appeal the reversal of Bell's conviction to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
As the Tribune first reported in May, the beating incident followed a series of white-on-black attacks in Jena in which the white assailants escaped serious charges. And it capped months of escalating racial tensions in the town set off after three white students hung nooses from a tree in the high school courtyard in what was perceived as a threat to blacks. School officials called the noose incident an "adolescent prank" and declined to expel the white students, outraging black students and their parents.
National civil rights leaders, including Rev. Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, had been planning to join black celebrities and thousands of Internet bloggers in a demonstration in Jena next Thursday, the day Bell had been scheduled to be sentenced to up to 15 years in prison on the battery conviction.
Nearly 200,000 people have signed petitions criticizing the prosecution of the black students and calling on Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco to intervene in the case. Bus caravans headed toward Jena have been organized at scores of churches across the country, and organizers had predicted that more than 20,000 protesters might show up in the town of 3,000.
But with the reversal of Bell's felony convictions, the extent of next Thursday's demonstration is now unclear.
"The crisis is not over yet," Jackson said Friday. "This ruling still leaves in suspension what's going to happen to the other five. But the Jena 6 and their supporters are now on the offensive. So long as these kids were in the dark without representation, they were all going up the river. When the lights came on and the public pressure flooded in, it began to change everything."
Alan Bean, director of Friends of Justice, a Texas-based civil rights group that was the first to notice the Jena case, said he expected the reversal of Bell's convictions will turn next Thursday's protest into a "celebration" of the power of public opinion to influence the Jena 6 case.
"People across the country, both black and white, conservative and liberal, were just appalled by what had happened in LaSalle Parish and the embarrassment factor weighed in very heavily for the appeals court," Bean said. "I don't think the state of Louisiana wants this travesty to go on any longer. I'd be very surprised if any of these other cases comes to trial."
Bell has remained in jail since December, unable to post a $90,000 bond. But his attorneys said they would go before Mauffray on Monday seeking to have Bell released. The judge declined previous defense requests to reduce Bell's bond, citing several juvenile assault convictions on the teen's record.
Bell's pro bono attorneys, brought into the case by civil rights leaders after his conviction, have argued that his trial, heard by an all-white jury, was filled with irregularities, including a court-appointed public defender who called no witnesses on his behalf and a prosecution witness who was one of the white youths who hung the nooses at the high school.
The NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Congressional Black Caucus have all denounced what they view as the harsh prosecutions of the Jena 6.
On Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama added his criticism of what he termed the "excessive charges" in the case.
"When nooses are being hung in high schools in the 21st Century, it's a tragedy," Obama said. "It shows that we still have a lot of work to do as a nation to heal our racial tensions."
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Read Tribune coverage of the 'Jena 6' case at chicagotribune.com/jena