Posted on December 19, 2012

‘Jena Six’ Teen Now an SPLC Community Advocate

Jamie Kizzire, SPLC, December 17, 2012

Theo Shaw remembers searching through a law book for answers while sitting in a jail cell.

It was 2006. Shaw and Robert Bailey Jr. were two teenagers desperate to find something in the law that could help them get out of jail.


The two friends were among the six black teens, known as the “Jena Six,” who were accused of beating up a white classmate at Louisiana’s Jena High School. The local prosecutor’s decision to charge them with attempted murder ignited a firestorm of media attention and public outrage across the country, raising troubling questions about race and justice in America.

Though he was only 17 at the time, Shaw began filing motions to lower his bail, which was his best chance of getting released. It was eventually reduced from $130,000 to $90,000. The community came together to post bond, freeing him after seven months behind bars.


“I really didn’t have a plan [after high school]. I lived in a poor community,” said Shaw, who later reached a plea agreement that allowed him to put the case behind him. {snip}

Today, the 23-year-old carries that jailhouse experience with him as he works with incarcerated youths and adults as a community advocate for the Southern Poverty Law Center in New Orleans. It’s an opportunity that he believes will serve him well when he is a lawyer one day.


Shaw joined the SPLC in September after graduating from the University of Louisiana at Monroe with a bachelor’s degree in political science. When he heard about an opportunity to serve as an SPLC community advocate for a year, he saw a learning experience that was worth delaying his entrance into law school.

Shaw’s job often takes him to the Orleans Parish Prison, where he speaks with inmates. His work is part of the SPLC’s federal lawsuit to correct the violent and inhumane conditions there. {snip}


Shaw and four other members of the Jena Six ultimately pleaded no contest to simple battery, a misdemeanor, in 2009. Under the plea agreement, they received unsupervised probation for seven days but no additional jail time. They each paid court costs and all but Shaw were assessed a $500 fine.

A confidential agreement was reached to pay restitution to the victim, Justin Barker, through the settlement of a civil suit filed on his behalf. The SPLC coordinated the overall defense strategy for the youths and represented one of the teens, Jesse Ray Beard. The sixth teen — Mychal Bell — pleaded guilty to second-degree battery as a juvenile.