Judge J.P. Mauffray threw out a conspiracy conviction against Mychal Bell, granting a defense motion that Bell’s June trial was improperly held in adult court and should instead have been conducted as a juvenile proceeding.
But Mauffray let stand Bell’s conviction on aggravated second-degree battery, for which the 17-year-old faces up to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced Sept. 20. On that date, thousands of demonstrators from across the nation are planning to descend on the town of 3,000 to protest the prosecution of Bell and five other black youths who have come to be called the “Jena 6.” the months since the Tribune first reported the Jena story in May, civil rights groups, including the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Congressional Black Caucus, have all criticized what they assert is the uneven application of justice in the mostly white town.
The six black youths were all initially charged with attempted second-degree murder after an incident in December at the local high school in which a white student was attacked and knocked unconscious after an alleged taunt by him.
That altercation capped months of violent racial unrest between blacks and whites throughout the town that was triggered in September 2006, when three white students hung nooses from a shade tree in the high school courtyard in a warning aimed at discouraging blacks from sitting there.
The white youths received brief suspensions after the Jena school superintendent termed the incident an “adolescent prank,” which in turn angered black students and parents who saw the nooses as a hate crime because of the history of lynchings in the Old South.
In the racially tense months that followed the noose incident, other white youths implicated in attacks on blacks were charged with misdemeanors or not at all, while the black youths in the school beating incident were charged with felonies.
“The court of public opinion is starting to coalesce rapidly around the defense of these kids,” said Alan Bean, director of Friends of Justice, a Texas-based civil rights group that has closely followed the Jena case. “Not that anybody justifies what these kids did, but they see that what’s happening to them isn’t fair and the district attorney and the school superintendent really created the situation that led to this.”
Bell, a state-ranked high school football star who was 16 at the time of the attack, is the only one of the six defendants who has so far gone to trial. On the eve of his trial, District Atty. Reed Walters abruptly reduced the attempted-murder charge to aggravated second-degree battery; on Tuesday, Walters similarly reduced the charges against defendants Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw, whose trials are set for January.
Bell’s new defense attorneys said they plan further appeals before the Sept. 20 sentencing hearing in a bid to get his remaining conviction vacated.
“Basically, we are knocking things out one piece at a time,” said Louis Scott, the lead defense attorney. “We are going to try to knock the rest of it out soon.”