HOUSTON -- Ruling in a racially charged case that has drawn scrutiny from national civil rights leaders, a judge in the small central Louisiana town of Jena yesterday partially vacated the conviction of a black teenager accused in the beating of a white student while the district attorney reduced attempted murder charges against two other black co-defendants.
Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. threw out a conspiracy conviction against Mychal Bell, granting a defense motion that Bell's June trial was improperly held in adult court and should have been conducted as a juvenile proceeding.
But Mauffray let stand Bell's conviction on aggravated second-degree battery, for which the 17-year-old faces up to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced Sept. 20. On that date, thousands of demonstrators from across the nation are planning to descend on the town of 3,000 to protest against the prosecution of Bell and five other black youths who have come to be called the "Jena 6."
In the months since the Chicago Tribune first reported the Jena story in May, civil rights groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Congressional Black Caucus, have criticized what they assert is the uneven application of justice in the mostly white town.
The six black youths were all initially charged with attempted second-degree murder after an incident last December at the local high school in which a white student was attacked and knocked unconscious after an alleged taunt.
That altercation capped months of violent racial unrest between blacks and whites throughout the town, triggered in September 2006 when three white students hung nooses from a shade tree in the high school courtyard in a warning aimed at discouraging blacks from sitting there.
The white youths received only brief suspensions after the Jena school superintendent termed the incident an "adolescent prank," which in turn angered black students and their parents who regarded the nooses as a provocative hate crime because of the history of lynchings in the South.
In the racially tense months that followed, other white youths implicated in attacks on blacks were charged with misdemeanors or not at all, while the black youths in the school beating incident were charged with felonies.
"The court of public opinion is starting to coalesce rapidly around the defense of these kids," said Alan Bean, head of Friends of Justice, a Texas-based rights group that has followed the case. "Not that anybody justifies what these kids did, but they see that what's happening to them isn't fair ... ."
Bell, a state-ranked high school football star who was 16 at the time of the attack, is the only one of the six defendants who has gone to trial. On the eve of his trial, District Attorney Reed Walters abruptly reduced the attempted-murder charge to aggravated second-degree battery; yesterday, Walters similarly reduced the charges against defendants Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw, whose trials are set for January.
Bell's new defense attorneys said they plan further appeals before the Sept. 20 sentencing hearing in a bid to get his remaining conviction vacated.
Howard Witt writes for the Chicago Tribune.