Seventeen-year-old Mychal Bell, the first of the so-called Jena Six to be convicted in a compelling and disturbing case that’s playing out in the shadow of Jim Crow, will head back to court tomorrow armed with a new legal team. They have filed an appeal and a motion to have Bell’s case remanded to juvenile court before his sentencing, scheduled for later this month, which could send him to prison for more than twenty years.
To understand why District Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. would serve justice by accepting Bell’s attorneys’ motions, some context might be helpful. Here is the background of the case, cobbled together from local and international news reports, online commentary and a petition organized by the civil rights group Color of Change:
There is a tree on the grounds of Jena High School that was, until last fall, known as “whites-only.” White students, who make up 80 percent of the student body in the still-segregated rural town of Jena, Louisiana, were the only ones allowed to hang out in its shade. Last September an African-American student asked for permission to sit beneath the tree; a day later three nooses were found swinging from its branches. The white students who hung them were suspended for a few days, and the incident (undeniably a hate crime by today’s standards) was written off as horseplay. “Adolescents play pranks,” the superintendent told the Chicago Tribune. “I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.”
Racial tensions continued to escalate throughout the fall. A group of black students organized a sit-in under the tree to protest the white students’ light suspension. Fights broke out at parties; a white man waved his gun in a confrontation with black students at a convenience store; and on November 30 one of the school buildings was set ablaze.
Then, on December 4, Justin Barker, a white student who had been taunting black students with racial slurs and defending the guys who had hung the nooses, was beaten up by six black students. During the skirmish Barker smacked his head on the pavement and suffered a concussion. He was treated at the local hospital and released that day, and was in good enough shape to head out and socialize that evening.
District Attorney Reed Walters, who had earlier that fall threatened black students that he could “take away your lives with a stroke of my pen,” pushed for maximum charges. The “Jena Six”–Robert Bailey (17), Theo Shaw (17), Carwin Jones (18), Bryant Purvis (17), Mychal Bell (16) and an unidentified minor–were expelled, arrested and charged with second-degree attempted murder. Bail was set between $70,000 and $138,000, far beyond the means of the kids’ parents. Bell, the first to face trial, saw his charges dropped to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit the same–he was convicted by an all-white jury in June.
Bell’s former public defender, who didn’t call a single witness during the trial, has since been replaced by a new, hopefully more competent team of attorneys. At tomorrow’s hearing, they plan to argue that according to Louisiana Children’s Code, a juvenile can’t be tried as an adult for aggravated second-degree battery.
Noel and his team should be applauded for attempting to right some very serious wrongs in this case. But they are defending a black “man” in a last bastion of the Old South; the odds, tragically, may be stacked against them. That is, unless Judge Mauffray has been persuaded that civil rights is more than just a phrase folks use up North.