HOUSTON -- 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.
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Racial demons rear heads
May 20, 2007
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 whites.
"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 felony.
"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."
How are these kids not being charged with a hate crime, 6 black students beat a white student and all they are charged with is assault. If it was reversed no doubt the white students would be charged with a hate crime.