The Jena Six (6)
Jena Six (or Jena 6) was the name given to a group of six black teenagers charged with the beating of Justin Barker, a white student at Jena High School in Jena, Louisiana, United States, on December 4, 2006. Sparking questions of racial disparity, many aspects of the case are troubling, including the subsequent crimes of the infamous Jena Six.
A number of events took place in and around Jena in the months preceding the Barker assault, which have been linked to an alleged escalation of racial tensions. These events included the hanging of nooses from a tree in the high school courtyard, two violent confrontations between white and black youths, and the destruction by fire of the main building of Jena High School. Six individuals (Robert Bailey, then aged 17; Mychal Bell, then 16; Carwin Jones, then 18; Bryant Purvis, then 17; Jesse Ray Beard, then 14; and Theo Shaw, then 17) were arrested in the assault on Barker. One, Mychal Bell, was initially convicted as an adult of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery. His convictions were overturned on the ground that he should have been tried as a juvenile. Prior to a retrial in juvenile court, he pled guilty to a reduced charge of simple battery. The other five defendants still await trial.
The Jena Six case sparked protests by those viewing the arrests and subsequent charges, initially attempted second-degree murder (though later reduced), as excessive and racially discriminatory. The protesters asserted that white Jena youths involved in other incidents were treated leniently. On September 20, 2007, between 15,000 and 20,000 protesters marched on Jena in what was described as the “largest civil rights demonstration in years”.
Events at Jena High School
At Jena High School, about 10% of students are black and more than 80% are white, reflecting the population of the city of Jena, which has about 3,000 people. Some early reporting indicated that students of different races seldom sat together, although this has been disputed. According to early reports, black students typically sat on bleachers near the auditorium, while white students sat under a large tree in the center of the school courtyard, referred to as the “white tree” or “prep tree”. According to some of the school’s teachers and administrators, the tree in question was not a “white tree” and students of all races had sat under it at one time or another.
A school assembly was held on August 31, 2006. A black male freshman asked the principal whether he could sit under the tree. According to Donald Washington, United States Attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, the principal stated that the question was posed in a “jocular fashion”. The principal told the students they could “sit wherever they wanted”. According to some reports, the freshman and his friends then sat under the tree.
The following morning, three nooses were discovered hanging from the tree. A black teacher described seeing both white and black students “playing with the nooses, pulling on them, jump-swinging from them, and putting their heads through them” that same day. Craig Franklin, assistant editor of The Jena Times, stated that the nooses were actually a prank by three students aimed at white members of the school rodeo team, and that the school’s investigating committee had concluded that “the three young teens had no knowledge that nooses symbolize the terrible legacy of the lynchings of countless blacks in American history.” The names of those who hung the nooses have not been publicly disclosed.
The school disciplinary process that followed is unclear. It has been reported that the principal learned that three white students were responsible and recommended expulsion, that the board of education overruled his recommendation, and that school superintendent Roy Breithaupt agreed with the overruling. It was initially reported that the punishment was reduced to three days of in-school suspension. However, the three students were isolated at an alternative school “for about a month”, spent two weeks on in-school suspension, served Saturday detentions, had to attend Discipline Court, were referred to Families in Need of Services, and had to have an evaluation before they were able to return to school as part of the district’s Crisis Management Policy Procedures.
The school superintendent was quoted as saying, “Adolescents play pranks. I don’t think it was a threat against anybody.” Black residents of Jena have stated that this decision stoked racial tensions leading to subsequent events.
Police were called to the school in the days after the noose incident. The principal took action by calling an assembly on September 6, 2006. The Jena Police Department asked Walters to attend and speak at the assembly. Already pressed for time due to a case under preparation, Walters felt that the students were not paying proper attention to his message. Walters warned the students “I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. With the stroke of a pen I can make life miserable for you or ruin your life. So I want you to call me before you do something stupid.” Though black students state Walters was looking at them when he made the comments, Walters and school board member Billy Fowler, also present, deny it. Walters said that he was irritated at “two or three girls, white girls, were chit-chatting on their cellphones or playing with their cellphones”.
On November 30, 2006, the main building of the high school was set on fire and burned down. Although it would be many months before the perpetrators were known, the news media widely cited the fire as a racially-charged event leading up to the assault on Barker. On December 28, 2007, LaSalle Parish Sheriff-elect Scott Franklin announced that an investigation had shown that the fire was set in an effort to destroy grade records in the building and to close the school for a time. Six racially diverse male suspects (three juveniles and three adults) had been arrested, and two more adult males were being sought. Franklin indicated that the fire was not racially motivated, and had no connection to the Jena Six. Two of the arson defendants have thus far pled guilty, and have been sentenced to ten years in prison, with restitution ordered in the amount of $10 million.
Fight at private party
On Friday, December 1, 2006, a private party was held at the Jena Fair Barn. Bailey and four other black youths attempted to enter the party at about 11:00 p.m. According to US Attorney Washington, they were told by a woman that no one was allowed inside without an invitation. The youths persisted, stating that some friends were already in attendance at the party. A white male, who was not a student, then jumped in front of the woman and a fight ensued. After the fight broke up, the woman told both the white male and the black students to leave the party.
Once outside, the black students were involved in another fight with a group of white males who were not students. Justin Sloan, a white male, was charged with battery for his role in the fight and was put on probation. Bailey later stated that one of the white males broke a beer bottle over his head, but there are no records of Bailey receiving medical treatment.
The following day, another incident occurred at the Gotta Go convenience store, outside Jena in unincorporated LaSalle Parish, between Matt Windham and three black youths including Bailey. Law enforcement reported that the accounts contradicted each other. Windham alleged that Bailey and his friends chased him, that he ran to get his gun, and that the students wrestled it away from him. According to the black students, as they left the convenience store, they were confronted by Windham with a shotgun. They stated they wrestled the gun away from him and fled the scene. Bailey was charged with disturbing the peace, second degree robbery, and theft of a firearm.
Attack on Barker
On December 4, 2006 17-year-old Justin Barker, a white Jena High School student, was assaulted at school by a group of black students. Superintendent Breithaupt described the assault as a “premeditated ambush and attack by six students against one. The victim attacked was beaten and kicked into a state of bloody unconsciousness.” The emergency physician’s record shows that he also had injuries to his face, ears, and hand.
Law enforcement arrested six students, eventually dubbed the “Jena Six”, who were accused in the attack. Five of them (Robert Bailey, Jr., then 17; Mychal Bell, then 16; Carwin Jones, then 18; Bryant Purvis, then 17; and Theo Shaw, then 17) were charged with attempted murder. The sixth student, Jesse Ray Beard (also known as Jesse Rae Beard), was charged as a juvenile. Despite his age, Mychal Bell was charged as an adult. This was due to Bell’s previous criminal record and because Walters believed Bell initiated the attack.
Mychal Bell proceedings
District Judge J. P. Mauffray, Jr. presided over Bell’s trial. On the first day of trial, June 26, 2007, Walters reduced the charges to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery. Because aggravated battery requires the use of a “dangerous weapon”, Walters argued that the tennis shoes that Bell had worn while allegedly kicking Barker were dangerous weapons. A number of witnesses testified that they saw Bell strike Barker, while other witnesses were unsure Bell was involved. Before the trial began, public defender Blane Williams had urged Bell to accept a plea bargain. At trial he rested the defense case without calling any witnesses or offering any evidence. All six members of Bell’s jury were white. The 150-person jury pool included black citizens, who make up 10 percent of the parish’s population, but none of the 50 potential jurors who showed up were black. Williams did not challenge the composition of the jury pool.
The jury found Bell guilty, and he faced the possibility of up to 22 years in prison. The judge scheduled sentencing for September 20, 2007. Bell’s new defense attorneys, Louis Scott and Carol Powell-Lexing, requested a new trial on the grounds that Bell should not have been tried as an adult. A request to lower Bell’s $90,000 bond was denied on August 24, 2007, due to his juvenile record. Bell had been put on probation for a battery that occurred December 25, 2005. While on probation he was convicted of another battery charge and two charges of criminal damage to property. One of the battery charges was for punching a 17-year-old girl in the face.
The media had initially reported that Bell had no prior criminal record. On September 4, 2007, Judge Mauffray vacated the conspiracy conviction on the grounds that Bell should have been tried as a juvenile, but let the battery conviction stand. Bell appealed his conviction, principally on the ground that he had been improperly tried as an adult, and on September 14, 2007, Louisiana’s Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Bell’s battery conviction, agreeing that the remaining charge was not among those for which a juvenile may be tried as an adult.
Following the appellate ruling, on September 21, 2007, Judge Mauffray denied the request for Bell to be eligible for bail pending possible further appeal. On September 26, Walters announced that the prosecution would not appeal the appellate ruling, but would try Bell as a juvenile. Bell was then released on $45,000 bond. Bell was subject to electronic monitoring and was under the supervision of a probation officer.
On October 11, 2007, Mauffray found that Bell had violated the terms of his probation for previous convictions. The judge then sentenced Bell to 18 months in a juvenile facility on two counts of simple battery and two counts of criminal destruction of property, and Bell was taken into custody. According to Walters, the matter was unrelated to the assault on Barker, and it was not mentioned during the proceedings. The defense filed a motion to dismiss the Barker charges on the ground that retrying Bell would amount to double jeopardy. On November 8, 2007, Mauffray denied the motion.
Bell’s retrial in the Barker assault was scheduled for December 6. Three days before the trial began, he pled guilty to a reduced charge of battery, and was sentenced to 18 months in a juvenile facility, with credit for time served. He agreed to testify against any of the others who go to trial. All appeals were dropped as part of the plea agreement.
On September 4, 2007, charges against Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy, as were those of Robert Bailey, Jr. on September 10. Bryant Purvis was arraigned on reduced charges of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery on November 7, 2007, pleading not guilty. Because Louisiana law considers seventeen-year-olds to be adults for purposes of criminal culpability, the charges for these four were unaffected by the appellate ruling overturning Bell’s conviction.
Proceedings were on hold for some time pending resolution of various motions that Mauffray be required to recuse himself. On July 31, 2008, Mauffray was removed from the cases by Judge Thomas Yeager for making questionable comments about the defendants. The Louisiana Supreme Court assigned Judge Yeager to hear the five remaining cases by order signed August 4, 2008 However, Walters has appealed Yeager’s recusal order of Mauffray.
Jesse Ray Beard, the youngest of the six, later returned to school. Bryant Purvis moved to attend a private school in the Dallas, Texas area.
Action by Members of Congress
On September 25, 2007, Representative John Conyers, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, announced that he would hold congressional hearings on what he described as “the miscarriages of justice that have occurred in Jena, Louisiana,” with the goal of pressuring the United States Department of Justice into taking action. The hearing took place on October 16, 2007; Washington and Sharpton, among others, testified. Walters was invited to testify but declined. Most Republican members of the committee declined to attend. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) exclaimed to Washington and other Justice Department officials, “Shame on you…. As a parent, I’m on the verge of tears,” and demanded, “I want to know what you’re going to do to get Mychal Bell out of jail!” US Attorney Washington responded that the federal government had a limited role to play in the matter.
Representative Lee and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus called upon outgoing Louisiana Governor Blanco to pardon the Jena Six on December 19, 2007, stating that “we believe Mychal Bell and the Jena 6 have paid a sufficient debt to society for any transgressions they may have committed.” Blanco’s office responded that she cannot grant pardons without a recommendation from the state Pardon Board, and no meeting of that body was scheduled during her remaining term of office. Walters commented that Lee’s “passion for racial equality is admirable, but her grasp of the facts is not.” He indicated that the attack on Barker was not just a schoolyard fight “but rather an unprovoked, unforeseen assault on a young man who had nothing to do with the hanging of the nooses.” Governor Blanco’s term of office ended without any pardons being granted.
Additional Developments and Infamy for the Jena Six
On July 31, 2007, the school had the tree cut down. School Board member Fowler said, “There’s nothing positive about that old tree. It’s all negative. And I’m serving on the new School Board, and we’re wanting to start fresh on some things.” According to Fowler, the tree would have had to have been cut down to make way for the rebuilding of the school after the fire. Others felt that cutting down the tree was not an effective way to address any problems of racism in Jena. “Cutting down that beautiful tree won’t solve the problem at hand,” said Caseptla Bailey, Robert Bailey’s mother. “It still happened.” The remains of the building have been cleared, and a bid accepted for the reconstruction.
Jones and Purvis attended the BET Hip Hop Awards in Atlanta on October 13, 2007 and presented the award for Video of the Year. When the two defendants came out on stage, they were greeted by a standing ovation. Emcee Katt Williams joked, “They don’t look so tough, do they?” The two members delivered speeches thanking family, friends, the “Hip-Hop Nation”, and those who came to Jena.
Justin Barker and his parents filed suit on November 29, 2007 against the parents of those accused of beating him, the adult members of the Jena Six (as of the time of the attack), an additional student named Malcolm Shaw and the LaSalle Parish School Board. Barker’s medical bills from his emergency room visit totaled more than $5,000. The lawsuit alleges that the LaSalle Parish School Board inadequately supervised students and failed to maintain discipline. The Barkers also allege that the school board did not implement a plan to “discourage the dangerous activity of threatening and attacking other students while in possession of actual knowledge of said threats and prior attacks while the students are on school grounds”. The case was on hold pending resolution of the criminal cases, but when the Barkers’ attorney learned that Jesse Ray Beard was using defense funds (which might be garnished) to pay for private school, he decided to push ahead with the case. However, following a motion by Bell’s civil attorney to recuse Mauffray in the civil case, proceedings are again on hold pending appointment of a judge to hear that recusal motion.
Jena Six illustrious rewards and infamy but continue crimes
Purvis – assault, probation, free scholarship to college
Bryant Purvis, aged 19, was arrested on February 7, 2008 for an assault causing bodily injury on a fellow high school student in Texas, where he now resides. Purvis was placed on probation for a year and required to do community service for the offense. He is a freshman at Ranger College, a junior college, attending on a basketball scholarship.
Jones – battery, trespass, receives high school diploma
Corwin Jones, now also 19, was arrested on May 10, 2008 in LaSalle Parish on a charge of misdemeanor simple battery, stemming from an incident three days earlier in which the Sheriff’s Department alleges that Jones struck a man from behind as several people, including Jones, came towards the man and his friends, with Jones’ companions carrying baseball bats. Jones denied fault, stating that the incident was caused by a fight the previous day in which Jones states he was not involved, that he had been harassed and intimidated, and “that the incident that day ‘struck a nerve and I reacted’.” Jones had previously been arrested on January 24, 2008 on a trespass-related charge. According to his father, Jones received his diploma from Jena High School because he had completed his school work before his arrest, and has now moved out of Jena, working in a hotel.
Bell – breaks probation, loses request for athletic eligibility, father assaults attorney, mother attacks women with shovel, shoots self with gun
Also on May 10, Mychal Bell was stopped in Olla, Louisiana for speeding and not having proper vehicle insurance while on a weekend pass from his sentence. Bell was not supposed to leave Monroe, Louisiana during the pass. The vehicle was towed due to the lack of insurance. On August 27, 2008, the Louisiana High School Athletic Association turned down Bell’s request for an extra year of athletic eligibility. Marcus Jones, Bell’s father, blamed Bell’s attorney at the time of the plea agreement for the denial. “If it weren’t for his attorney, Mychal would be able to play football,” Jones said. “They coerced him into taking that plea agreement. If he wouldn’t have taken that plea, he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in now.” After the hearing, Jones allegedly spat in the face of his son’s attorney, Carol Powell-Lexing, and supposedly also pushed her to the floor. Jones denied assaulting Powell-Lexing, stating he would never get into a physical fight with a woman. Jones has been charged with assault. Despite the alleged assault, Powell-Lexing will continue as part of Bell’s defense team. Bell’s mother, Melissa Bell, was arrested on October 11, 2008 on two counts of aggravated battery for allegedly hitting two women with a shovel, and was held on $100,000 bail.
On December 24, 2008, Bell was arrested and charged with shoplifting, resisting arrest, and simple assault, having attempted to steal clothes from a department store and reportedly fought back against a security guard and off-duty police officer. He was released on $1,300 bond. On December 29, Bell shot himself in the shoulder with a .22-caliber firearm, though his wound is not life-threatening.
Beard – battery, criminal damage to property, probation removed, tuition paid for with Jena Six defense fund money
In February 2007, Jesse Ray Beard was accused, and subsequently convicted and sentenced for simple battery, simple criminal damage to property less than $500 and simple assault. He received a suspended sentence of incarceration, and was placed on house arrest. On July 9, 2008, Beard, who is now 17, was released from house arrest so that he could attend a summer program and football camp in New York State. It was revealed at a hearing on that date that Beard had been recommended for expulsion for thirteen disciplinary actions, but that the recommendation had been overturned. In New York, he stayed with a local attorney and worked as an intern in the attorney’s office, while taking summer courses to prepare him for junior year. He was required to return to Jena by August 11. However, on August 6, Yeager terminated Beard’s probation (he remains under the conditions of his bail release in the Barker incident) so he could attend the Canterbury School in Connecticut. Half of the $39,900 annual tuition is being paid for with Jena Six defense fund money.