October 17th, 2007 05:20 EST
Jena Six Makes No Sense
One would think they would have learned their lesson in Jena, La. by now - but they haven't. Of the teens making up the Jena 6, five didn't have a criminal record. So authorities decided to first prosecute Mychal Bell, the one who did have a record. They apparently thought it would be easier to get convictions later against his more upstanding co- defendants. But they mishandled Bell's case and had no idea that their legal shenanigans would ignite a national outcry.
The Jena 6 case is being portrayed in the White- owned media as being simply a case of six African- American youth attacking a fellow White student at Jena High School, stomping him into a state of unconsciousness. Most accounts gloss over racially- charged incidents that preceded the attack, including the hanging of three nooses on a Jena High tree after the unofficial Whites-only lunch area had been desegregated (the principal recommended that the three culprits be expelled, but the school board overruled him); Whites beating Robert Bailey Jr., one of the Jena 6, prior to the assault on the White student; and a White student drawing a rifle on African- Americans at a local convenience store. Instead of arresting the White student, the Black victims were charged with several crimes, including stealing the weapon they had wrestled from the White student.
Adding to this perverted version of Jena justice was the approach the prosecutor and judge took toward Bell, a star running back at Jena High. As long as he was putting on stellar performances on the field, like the time he gained 232 yards in a 40-14 rout of Vidalia High, no one seemed overly concerned about his off- field antics. According to court records, Bell had been involved in two cases of battery and two instances of damage to property. He had been placed on probation until January 18, 2008, his 18th birthday.
The cheers turned into boos after the attack on the White student, Justin Barker, who has since been expelled from Jena High for taking a hunting gun to school.
Under Louisiana's Children Code, someone 15 or older can be tried as an adult for certain violent crimes, such as attempted murder. Bell was 16 years old at the time of the incident. The Jena 6 were initially charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder. This meant that only the 14-year-old unnamed juvenile in the case would be exempt from being tried as an adult.
Bells' bond was initially set at $130,000, but it was later reduced to $90,000. He was the only member of the Jena 6 unable to post bond.
Shortly before Bell's trial began in June, LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters reduced the charges to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit battery. Bell was convicted by an all-White jury. Although the reduced charges were not sufficient to try Bell as an adult, District Court Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. threw out the conspiracy conviction against Bell, but inexplicably maintained he still had jurisdiction over the battery charge in adult court.
The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana disagreed, ruling on Sept. 14 that Judge Mauffray "erred" in maintaining jurisdiction over the battery case and holding that "the conviction for aggravated second degree battery is vacated." The appeals judges ruled "jurisdiction remains exclusively in juvenile court."
Judge Mauffray was forced to release Bell on $45,000 bond, which was put up by a Black businessman.
In small, rural cities, such as Jena, judges often preside over both juvenile and adult courts. So, when Bell went to juvenile court, where there is no jury, there to meet him was none other than Judge Mauffray, the judge who had been overruled for his mishandling of the adult case against Bell. Instead of rescuing himself because he had a conflict of interest,
Mauffray ruled that Bell had violated the terms of his probation growing out of a December 25, 2005 battery by getting in a fight with the White student and ordered him back to jail after two weeks of freedom.
Bell's attorneys are filing yet another appeal on his behalf, hoping to extricate Mauffray from a case he seems determined to control.
On Nov. 7, the four remaining defendants eligible to be tried as adults - Robert Bailey Jr., Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw - will appear in court for a hearing. Unlike Bell, they can be clearly tried as adults.
Just as protesters descended on Jena September 20, the original date scheduled for Bell's hearing, they should return en masse on Nov. 7 to let officials in Jena know that what they consider Jena justice is no justice at all.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach. He can be reached through his Web site, www.georgecurry.com.
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