Mary Foster, AP, June 26, 2009
Five members of the Jena Six pleaded no contest Friday to misdemeanor simple battery and won’t serve jail time, ending a case that thrust a small Louisiana town into the national spotlight and sparked a massive civil rights demonstration.
State District Judge Tom Yeager then sentenced the five, standing quietly surrounded by their lawyers, to seven days unsupervised probation and fined $500. It was a far less severe end to their cases than seemed possible when the six students–all of whom are black–were initially charged with attempted murder in the 2006 attack on Justin Barker, a white classmate. They became known as the “Jena Six,” after the central Louisiana town where the beating happened.
Barker and his family and friends sat without expression throughout the hearing. Barker’s attorney said he graduated and is now an oil field worker. The family did not comment.
As part of the deal, one of the attorneys read a statement from the five defendants in which they said they knew of nothing Barker had done to provoke the attack.
“To be clear, not one of us heard Justin use any slur or say anything that justified Mychal Bell attacking Justin nor did any of us see Justin do anything that would cause Mychal to react,” the statement said.
The statement also expressed sympathy for Barker and his family, and acknowledged the past 2 1/2 years had “caused Justin and his parents tremendous pain and suffering, much of which has gone unrecognized.”
By pleading no contest, the five do not admit guilt but acknowledge prosecutors had enough evidence for a conviction. LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters said in a statement that he could have won convictions but wanted to end the matter for Barker.
Each paid the fine and court costs immediately. The payment of restitution to Barker was also part of the deal, but the amount was not released. A lawsuit filed by Barker against the group was also settled Friday, though the terms were confidential.
The only member of the group to serve jail time was Bell, who pleaded guilty in December 2007 to second-degree battery and was sentenced to 18 months in jail.
Four of Friday’s defendants have graduated from high school, and all are attending or getting ready to attend college. Purvis has completed his first year and Bell is planning to attend college this fall. Beard is a senior in high school in Connecticut.
“They can move along with their lives,” said Bailey’s attorney, James Boren. “And because there are no felonies they can look forward to full lives ahead.”
The severity of the original charges brought widespread criticism and eventually led more than 20,000 people to converge in September 2007 on the tiny town of Jena for a major civil rights march. Some $275,000 was raised to hire a large defense team for the six, said Beard’s attorney, David Utter.