In prosecuting the Jena Six according to white law, LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters has done nothing wrong. So says LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters in this sneaky op-ed in today’s New York Times.
Walters spends several paragraphs explaining why he didn’t prosecute the noose-hangers–the intricacies of Louisiana statutes on hate crimes, as I’ve learned in researching the subject, do, indeed, make it difficult to mount such a case–but he doesn’t explain why he didn’t report the noose-hanging incident to the FBI, which keeps track of hate crimes and prosecutes them, when it sees fit, as a federal offense. What’s clear, in the way Walters handled the incident last year and in the way he explains himself today, is that he doesn’t regard the noose-hanging incident as a crime at all.
After he’s dispensed with the nooses, Walters moves on to explain how he perceives the fight. “Last week, a reporter asked me whether, if I had it to do over, I would do anything differently,” he writes.
I didn’t think of it at the time, but the answer is yes. I would have done a better job of explaining that the offenses of Dec. 4, 2006, did not stem from a “schoolyard fight” as it has been commonly described in the news media and by critics.
Conjure the image of schoolboys fighting: they exchange words, clench fists, throw punches, wrestle in the dirt until classmates or teachers pull them apart. Of course that would not be aggravated second-degree battery, which is what the attackers are now charged with. (Five of the defendants were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder.) But that’s not what happened at Jena High School.
What Walters fails to mention–and must mention if he intends to be forthright about his prosecution of this case–is that those five defendants were charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit the same. According to his argument, the Jena Six huddled together and agreed beforehand to kill Justin Barker. Now, I wasn’t there, so I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that’s not what happened at Jena High School, either. I think it’s more likely that Walters elevated the charge from battery to murder because that was the only way according to Louisiana law that he could try Mychal Bell, a juvenile at the time of the fight, as an adult. “I considered adult status appropriate because of his role as the instigator of the attack, the seriousness of the charge and his prior criminal record,” Walters writes. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t agree, and rightly overturned Bell’s conviction.
Walters is not backing down; that much is clear. And despite his obviously blinkered conception of justice, he hasn’t been recused from the case, nor has his partner, Judge J.P. Mauffray. That would require intervention from Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. Blanco, a lame duck who has so far declined to get involved, has no choice by now. She is meeting today with Al Sharpton, who has called for an investigation of both Walters and Mauffray and for the restoration of justice. “We are not fighting for black kids that beat up white kids,” Sharpton has said. “We’re talking about the disparity in how the law works.”
Michigan Representative John Conyers, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, has also stepped in. He’s holding a forum on Friday at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Legislative Conference to talk about Jena, and plans to schedule a hearing with the Judiciary Committee. “We’ve reached a point in history where this kind of situation is no longer tolerable,” Conyers said. Unfortunately, it seems that Walters has some catching up to do.