Correction to This Article
The article on the arrests of six teenagers in Jena, La., incorrectly reported that defendant Mychal Bell had no prior criminal record. Bell had a juvenile record that had not been made public at the time of the article's publication.

La. Town Fells 'White Tree,' but Tension Runs Deep

Tina Jones of Jena, La., stands under a tree at Jena High School where three nooses were found dangling last year. The incident set off racial unrest in the town, including a fight for which her son Bryant Purvis faces criminal charges. School officials had the tree cut down this summer.
Tina Jones of Jena, La., stands under a tree at Jena High School where three nooses were found dangling last year. The incident set off racial unrest in the town, including a fight for which her son Bryant Purvis faces criminal charges. School officials had the tree cut down this summer. (By Darryl Fears -- The Washington Post)

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By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 4, 2007

JENA, La. -- Here in the woodsy heart of Louisiana, town leaders were looking for a fresh start, a way to erase the recent memory of Jim Crow-like hangman's nooses dangling from a shade tree at the local high school. So they cut the tree down.

But after the events of the past 12 months, that attempt by white officials about two weeks ago to heal the town's deep racial divide before the start of a new school year might be too little, too late.

A few weeks after the nooses were discovered in September, an arsonist torched a wing of Jena High School. Race fights roiled the town for days, culminating in a schoolyard brawl that led the LaSalle Parish district attorney to charge six black teenagers with attempted murder for beating up a white teenager who suffered no life-threatening injuries.

Mychal Bell, the first of the six to be tried, is scheduled to be sentenced in September. He was convicted in July by an all-white jury on reduced charges of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit it. Like his co-defendants -- Robert Bailey, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Theodore Shaw and Jesse Beard -- Bell had no prior criminal record.

He faces up to 22 years in prison, and civil rights advocates say the reduced charges were still excessive and did not fit the crime. "Can they really do this to me?" Bell asked recently, sitting in his jail cell looking frightened and numb.

The white teenager who was beaten, Justin Barker, 17, was knocked out but walked out of a hospital after two hours of treatment for a concussion and an eye that was swollen shut. He attended a ring ceremony later that night.

District Attorney Reed Walters said in December that his decision to prosecute the black teenagers to the full extent of the law had nothing to do with race. He would not comment further on the case while it is pending. But black residents in Jena said issues of race permeate their town, 230 miles northwest of New Orleans.

Civil rights advocates say the issues are much larger than Jena. Zealous prosecutions of black youngsters are multiplying across the nation, they say. They cite three highly visible cases in which white prosecutors won prison sentences of up to 10 years against black teenagers, only to have those sentences voided on appeal.

In Douglas County, Ga., Genarlow Wilson was convicted of molestation and sentenced to 10 years for engaging in consensual sex with a 15-year-old girl when he was 17. He served more than two years before a judge voided the sentence, but Wilson, now 21, remains in prison while the state appeals.

Also in Georgia, the state Supreme Court threw out the conviction of Marcus Dixon, 19, who was serving a 10-year prison sentence for having sex with an underage white girl in 2003.

In Paris, Tex., a special conservator ordered the release of Shaquanda Cotton, 16, who was serving up to seven years for shoving a white teacher's aide in 2005. Months earlier, the same white judge had given probation to a 14-year-old white girl who burned down her family's home.

"We are seeing two systems of justice: one system of justice for white folks and one system of justice for black folks," said Jordan Flaherty, an editor who is following the Louisiana case for Left Turn magazine, an liberal activist publication based in New York.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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