Art: David Hollenbach
By Bill Quigley
In a small, still mostly segregated section of rural Louisiana, an all-white jury heard a series of white witnesses called by a white prosecutor testify in a courtroom overseen by a white judge in a trial of a fight at the local high school where a white student who had been making racial taunts was hit by black students. The fight was the culmination of a series of racial incidents starting when whites responded to black students sitting under the “white tree” at their school by hanging three nooses from the tree. The white jury and white prosecutor and allwhite supporters of the white victim were all on one side of the courtroom. The black defendant, 17-year-old Mychal Bell, and his supporters were on the other. The jury quickly convicted Mychal Bell of two felonies — aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery on June 28. Bell, a 16-year-old sophomore football star at the time he was arrested, faces up to 22 years in prison. Five other black youths await similar trials on attempted second degree murder and conspiracy charges.
The rest of the story, which is being reported across the world in papers in China, France and England, is just as chilling.
The trouble started under “the white tree” in front of Jena High School where white students always sit during school breaks.
In September 2006, some black students at Jena High School asked permission from school administrators to sit under the “white tree.” School officials advised them to sit wherever they wanted. They did.
The next day, three nooses, in the school colors, were hanging from the “white tree.”
The principal found that three white students were responsible and recommended expulsion. The white superintendent of schools overruled the principal and gave the students a three-day suspension saying that the nooses were just a youthful stunt. “Adolescents play pranks,” the superintendent told the Chicago Tribune, “I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.”
The African-American community was hurt and upset. “Hanging those nooses was a hate crime, plain and simple,” said Tracy Bowens, a mother of students at Jena High.
But, blacks in northwestern Louisiana have little political power. The ten-person, all-male parish (county) government has one African-American member. The ninemember, all-male school board has one African- American member. There is one black police officer in Jena (pop. 2971) and two black public school teachers.
Black students decided to resist and organized a sit-in under the “white tree” at the school to protest the light suspensions given to the noose-hanging white students.
The white district attorney then came to Jena High with law enforcement officers and reportedly warned protesting black students to stop denouncing this “innocent prank” saying, “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen.” The school was put on lockdown for the rest of the week.
Racial tensions remained high throughout the fall.
On the night of Nov. 30, a still unsolved fire burned down the main academic building of Jena High School.
On the following night, a black student who showed up at a white party was beaten by whites. On Saturday, Dec. 2, a young white man pulled out a shotgun in a confrontation with young black men at a convenience store outside Jena before the men wrestled it away from him. The black men who took the shotgun away were later arrested. No charges were filed against the white man.
On Dec. 4, at Jena High, a white student — who allegedly had been making racial taunts, including calling African-American students “niggers” while supporting the students who hung the nooses and who beat up the black student at the off-campus party — was knocked down, punched and kicked by black students. The white victim was taken to the hospital treated and released. He attended a social function that evening.
Six black Jena students were arrested and charged with attempted second-degree murder. They were Robert Bailey Jr., 17, Mychal Bell, 16, Carwin Jones, 18, Bryant Purvis, 17, Theo Shaw, 18 and a still unidentified minor. Bonds were set between $70,000-138,000. All six were expelled from school.
Few of the families could afford bond or private attorneys. Bell remained in jail from December 2006 until his trial because his family was unable to post the $90,000 bond.
The Jena Six and their families were pressured to plead guilty. Bell was reported to have been leaning towards pleading guilty right up until his trial when he decided he would not plead guilty to a felony. When it finally came, the trial of Bell, who was represented by an appointed public defender, was swift.
On the morning of the trial, the district attorney reduced the charges from attempted second-degree murder to second-degree aggravated battery and conspiracy. Aggravated battery in Louisiana law demands the attack be with a dangerous weapon. The dangerous weapon? The prosecutor argued that the tennis shoes worn by Bell could be considered a dangerous weapon used by “the gang of black boys” who beat the white victim.
Most shocking of all, when the pool of potential jurors was summoned, 50 people appeared — every single one white.
The LaSalle Parish clerk defended the allwhite group to the Alexandria Louisiana Town Talk saying that the jury pool was selected by computer. “The venire [panel of prospective jurors] is color blind. The idea is for the list to truly reflect the racial makeup of the community, but the system does not take race into factor.” Officials said they had summoned 150 people, but these were the only people who showed up.
The prosecutor called 17 witnesses — eleven white students, three white teachers, and two white nurses. Some said they saw Bell kick the victim, others said they did not see him do anything. The white victim testified that he did not know if Bell hit him or not.
The Chicago Tribune reported that the public defender did not challenge the allwhite jury pool, presented no evidence and called no witnesses. The public defender told Town Talk after resting his case without calling any witnesses that he knew he would be second-guessed by many but was confident that the jury would return a verdict of not guilty. “I don’t believe race is an issue in this trial… I think I have a fair and impartial jury.”
The jury deliberated for less than three hours and found Bell guilty on the maximum possible charges of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. He faces up to 22 years in prison.
The public defender told the press afterwards, “I feel I put on the best defense that I could.” Responding to criticism of not putting on any witnesses, the attorney said “why open the door for further accusations? I did the best I could for my client, Mychal Bell.”
At a rally in front of the courthouse the next day, Alan Bean, a Texas minister and leader of the Friends of Justice, said “I have seen a lot of trials in my time. And I have never seen a more distressing miscarriage of justice than what happened in LaSalle Parish yesterday.”
Bell’s sentencing is scheduled for July 31. Theodore Shaw is due to go on trial shortly. The rest of the Jena Six await similar trials. Meanwhile, the “white tree” outside Jena High sits quietly in the hot sun.
People interested in supporting can contact: the Jena 6 Defense Committee, P.O. Box 2798, Jena, LA 71342 jena6defense@ gmail.com; Friends of Justice, 507 North Donley Avenue, Tulia, TX 79088 fojtulia. org; or the ACLU of Louisiana, P.O. Box 56157, New Orleans, LA 70156 laaclu.org or 417.350.0536.
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola University New Orleans. Audrey Stewart contributed to this article, which originally appeared on commondreams.org.