When I spoke earlier in the week with Louis Scott, the lead counsel on Mychal Bell’s team of defense attorneys, he said he wasn’t sure what to expect from the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals. “We’re still planning for sentencing as if it’s going to occur,” he said. “You have to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” So now that the Third Circuit has responded to Scott’s emergency writ by vacating Bell’s conviction, the question becomes, Was this the best possible scenario?
The short answer is no. First and foremost, Bell remains in jail and may stay there for as long as the appeals process plays out. Second, yesterday’s ruling affects Bell specifically and does not necessarily affect the other five members of the Jena Six. Bell, who was 16 at the time of the fight, was the only juvenile who was tried as an adult; one of the six was tried as a juvenile, and the rest were 17, the age of majority in Louisiana.
“The defendant was not tried on an offense which could have subjected him to the jurisdiction of the criminal court,” the Court explained. “The provision of [the state Children’s Code] permitting the trial court to retain criminal jurisdiction over juvenile defendants under limited circumstances, is inapplicable, and jurisdiction remains exclusively in juvenile court.”
Had the Court decided that trying Bell for aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit the same constituted double jeopardy, as Scott argued, then that, of course, would have impacted all of the cases. Had the Court decided that the prosecutor or jury should have been recused–given the obvious biases on the part of Walters and Mauffray, the racial imbalance of the jury and the lack of effort to contact any potential black jurors–that, too, would have affected all of the cases. Instead, the Court ruled “narrowly” on Bell’s status as a juvenile.
So the ruling is a victory–for Bell. But it’s not the end of the story. Walters has said that his first step will be to appeal the Third Circuit’s ruling up to the Louisiana Supreme Court, though if I were to hazard a guess, given the momentum and the media attention, I’d bet the Court will shoot him down. If Walters wants to prosecute Bell–and given his previous actions and statements, it’s clear that he does–he’ll have to start over from scratch by trying him in juvenile court. Meanwhile, the trials for the rest of the Jena Six, as of today, are still moving forward.