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.
"If this had been a fight between only black students, there would not have been this penalty," said Flaherty, who is white. "This is not a group of kids with a history of trouble, but they do have a history of speaking out."
Liz Ryan, chief executive of the Washington-based Campaign for Youth Justice, said Flaherty's observations are supported by research. Black youths represented 28 percent of juvenile arrests and 58 percent of youths sent to adult prisons between 2002 and 2004, according to a study by the campaign titled "And Justice for Some: Differential Treatment of Minority Youth in the Justice System."
"Kids of color are much more likely to be sent to adult courts than white kids," Ryan said. "It's the greatest disparity in the juvenile justice system."
The parents of the victim, David and Kelli Barker, told reporters they are tired of the attention generated by the case and declined to comment. But in a June interview with the Daily Town Talk newspaper in nearby Alexandria, La., David Barker said the prosecution was fair.
"All you hear is, 'Justice for the Jena Six.' I wouldn't mind justice for the one," he said. "It doesn't matter the race -- what matters is what happened to our son."
Jena sits on a winding state highway, a sleepy rural outpost. Once upon a time, it was Ku Klux Klan country. But, "in the past 50 years, our little town has come a long way," said school board member Billy Wayne Fowler. He said white people in the town are no longer racist, but he acknowledged that black people were mistreated in the past.
Black residents said the tying of the nooses was evidence that race relations have not improved that much. They said the superintendent's decision to hand only a three-day suspension to the white students who tied the nooses, overriding the principal's decision to expel them, sparked the anger that led to the disturbance.
The chain of events began at the start of school last September. At an assembly that kicked off classes, a black freshman asked the white principal if black students could sit under "the white tree" -- a shade tree where only white students regularly sat. The answer was, "You can sit anywhere you want."
But when black students showed up in the broiling hot yard, they found three nooses hanging from the tree's branches. After a number of scuffles, the district attorney came to the school and gathered students for a tough talk.
"I can make your life go away with the stroke of a pen," they recalled him saying. Black students said he looked directly at them. Walters denied it.
The incident was never reported to police, said U.S. Attorney Donald W. Washington. A report might have triggered a hate-crime investigation, although federal authorities rarely go after juveniles for such crimes. Washington added that if the students had been expelled, tensions might have been eased and the violence avoided.
In the weeks that followed, the fighting continued. In one scuffle, Robert Bailey, one of the six teenagers now facing trial, said a white man broke a beer bottle over his head after jumping him at a party, but there was no immediate investigation. Months later, Justin Sloan, who is white, was charged with simple battery and given probation for that attack.
Bailey was involved in a second incident when he and friends spotted one of his attackers at a gas station. As Bailey and his friends approached, they said, the white teenager ran to his truck and brandished an unloaded shotgun at them. Bailey helped wrest the weapon away, refused to give it back and was charged with stealing the gun.
Days later came the school fight that led to the prosecutions. Sheriff Carl Smith said the crimes justified the charges.
"It's gotten into the media, and the media has spread it all over the United States that this is about race when it's not about race," he said.
Black parents strongly disagree.
"It's always been about race in Jena. Once you're here, you learn to deal with what happens," said Caseptla Bailey, Robert Bailey's mother. "Some of the things that have gone on, we allowed to go on. It's just gotten to a point that people were ready to stand up and fight."