Charges Reduced in 'Jena 6' Case,
Change made on day jury was to be picked
By Howard Witt
The district attorney
prosecuting a racially charged beating case in the small Louisiana
town of Jena abruptly reduced attempted-murder charges Monday
against a black high school student accused of attacking a white
student, drawing cautious praise from civil rights leaders who
contend the charges were excessive and part of a pattern of uneven
justice in the town.
Mychal Bell, 16, a former Jena High School football star, and five
other black students had been facing the potential of up to 100
years in prison if convicted of attempted murder, conspiracy and
other charges for the December beating of the white student, who was
knocked unconscious but not hospitalized. The incident capped months
of escalating racial tensions at the high school that began after
several white youths hung nooses from a tree in the school courtyard
in a taunt aimed at blacks.
But as jury selection was about to begin in Bell's case Monday,
District Atty. Reed Walters reduced the charges to aggravated
second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated
second-degree battery, which together carry a maximum of 22 years in
prison. Walters, who is prosecuting Bell as an adult, also offered
the teenager a plea agreement including a suspended sentence, which
Bell's father said the youth rejected.
Trials for the other five accused in the case have been delayed, and
it was not clear whether Walters intended to reduce the charges
against them as well. Walters did not speak to reporters in Jena or
return calls seeking comment.
The case against the "Jena Six," as the defendants have come to be
called by their supporters, received national notice after it was
featured in a May 20 Tribune report that detailed how racial animus
had divided the mostly white central Louisiana town of 3,000 and
erupted into repeated incidents of violence between blacks and
"It certainly looks like the district attorney responded to the
scrutiny the media has brought to this case," said Alan Bean, a
civil rights activist in Tulia, Texas, who, along with
representatives of the ACLU and the NAACP, has been sharply critical
of the charges against the black youths. "I don't think he's gone
far enough in reducing the charges, but we're certainly in a better
place than we were."
Bell's father, Marcus Jones, said Monday that even though his son
has been jailed since December and unable to post $90,000 bail, he
preferred to take his case to a jury rather than plead guilty to a
"The DA is trying to use my son as a scapegoat for these ridiculous
charges," Jones said. "He knows there's no proof showing that my son
and those other kids were trying to kill that boy. It was a simple
high school fight. How can you turn that into attempted murder?"
Darrell Hickman, an attorney for one of the other youths charged in
the case, said he expected the charges against the other defendants
would eventually be reduced as well. And he asserted that even the
reduced charges would be hard to prove.
"I think the district attorney is still overreaching," Hickman said.
"The new charge is aggravated second-degree battery, which requires
use of a weapon. There's no evidence that any weapon was involved."
posted September 13, 2007
reprinted form the Chicago Tribune