Residents: Nooses Spark School Violence, Divide Town

Susan Roesgen and Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN, September 4, 2007

The always-smiling 16-year-old often spent weekends on the couch, munching Little Debbie snack cakes, watching football and dreaming of the day he would join his heroes in the NFL.

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Bell, now 17, sits in a cell in Jena, waiting to learn later this month whether he will spend the next two decades in prison.

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Mychal Bell wasn’t convicted of attempted murder. The charges were diluted to aggravated battery and conspiracy, but undiluted is the outrage over the fates of Bell and the rest of the Jena 6.

Many in this sleepy town of 3,000, where 12 percent of the population is black, are calling Bell’s June conviction a case of Jim Crow justice.

They question why Bell’s public defender never called a witness in the trial. They question the all-white jury that took three hours to convict him. They question charges they say are wildly overblown. They question why the teen was tried as an adult.

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A threat or a prank?

In September 2006, as the school year kicked off, a black Jena High School student asked the vice principal if he and some friends could sit under an oak tree where the white students typically congregated.

Told by the vice principal they could sit wherever they pleased, the student and his pals plopped down under the sprawling branches of a shade tree in the campus courtyard.

The next day, students arrived at school to find three nooses hanging from those branches.

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The school’s principal recommended expulsion for those behind the nooses, according to local newspaper in nearby Alexandria. Instead, The Town Talk reported, a school district committee overruled the recommendation and suspended three white students for three days for hanging the nooses, a gesture written off as a prank.

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A series of scuffles ensued over the next three months as racial tension at the school became palpable.

The district attorney was summoned to address the student body. Off-campus fights were reported. [Robert] Bailey [one of the Jena 6] said he had a beer bottle broken over his head in one incident, a shotgun pulled on him in another.

On November 30, someone torched the school’s main academic building. The arson remains unsolved, but many suspect it’s linked to the discord strangling Jena High.

The attack

Four days after the arson, several students jumped a white classmate, Justin Barker, knocking him unconscious before stomping and kicking him.

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Barker was taken to the hospital with injuries to both eyes and ears as well as cuts. His right eye had blood clots, said his mother, Kelli Barker. Justin Barker was treated and released that day.

Bell, Bailey, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and an unidentified juvenile—all black teens—were arrested and charged with attempted murder. The weapons used, according to the charges—shoes. Their bails were set at between $70,000 and $138,000.

On Tuesday, LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters reduced the charges against Jones and Shaw to second-degree aggravated battery, the same charge on which Bell was convicted.

Only Bell remains in jail, on a $90,000 bond, and the judge has refused to lower it, citing Bell’s criminal record, which includes four juvenile offenses—two simple battery charges among them.

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Attorneys ask judge to reconsider

Bell’s new attorneys will try Tuesday to have their client’s conviction thrown out or have the case remanded to juvenile court, where they say it should have been handled in the first place.

If that fails, Bell is scheduled for a September 20 sentencing hearing where he faces up to 22 years in prison. The other five await their days in court.

The case is getting international media attention—a buzz that has drawn the NAACP and civil rights stalwarts such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III—but many in Jena are skeptical the boys can get a fair trial.

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Kristi Boyett, a white resident, is not so nostalgic. She and her family are leaving Jena “because of the racist stuff that’s going on here,” she said.

She fears for her children’s safety in the public schools, she said, and she’s not surprised that racial tension in Jena has reached a breaking point.

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‘We lost Jena’

Other longtime residents, however, paint a more harmonious portrait of Jena and blame the media for casting their town in a negative light. Mayor Murphy McMillan declined to be interviewed, saying only, “The media is making our town look bad.”

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Advocates for the Jena 6 aren’t saying the boys should be let off if they indeed pummeled Justin Barker. Rather, they’re saying the charges should match the crime—and that the juvenile court should handle the teens’ cases.

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