By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 15, 2007
A Louisiana appeals court yesterday overturned the aggravated-battery conviction of a black high school student who was found guilty of attacking a white classmate after a racial incident that raised tensions in their small town.
The state's 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that Mychal Bell, 17, should not have been tried as an adult by LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters, and that the trial judge erred in allowing Bell to be tried as an adult on charges of aggravated second-degree battery. Under Louisiana law, teenagers can be tried as adults for certain violent crimes but not battery, the court said.
Bell, who was 16 at the time of the incident, awaited sentencing on Sept. 20 in a case that drew nationwide attention because of the severity of the charges that had been filed against him and five other youths involved in a schoolyard fight. He faced 15 years in jail.
Thousands of protesters planned to board about 100 buses and converge in Bell's home town of Jena to protest the case.
Organizers of the protest, including the Rev. Al Sharpton and radio personality Michael Baisden, hailed the court's ruling but said the protest would continue because five other black youngsters who, with Bell, make up the "Jena 6" face charges similar to Bell's.
The youngsters were accused of kicking and punching a fellow student at Jena High School. The victim, Justin Barker, was knocked out and received a black eye but suffered no permanent injuries.
Walters first charged the attackers with attempted second-degree murder. He reduced the charges against five of the defendants as the case drew national attention.
Racial tension rose in Jena after white students hung three nooses in a tree at the school. Black parents wanted the students expelled, but the superintendent of schools opted to suspend them for three days.
In subsequent weeks, an arsonist torched a wing of the school, and racial fighting roiled the town. Only the black high school students were arrested and charged in the fights. Walters vowed to try them as adults.
Prosecutors now have the option of trying Bell for attempted murder as an adult or aggravated battery as a juvenile.
Bell has been jailed since his arrest in December. An attorney for Bell who appeared on Baisden's afternoon radio show along with Sharpton said that they will seek to free him and fight any attempts to retry him in juvenile court.
"This is a child. He's been locked up in a prison for a year, and a court's saying that he never should have been tried as an adult," Sharpton said. "He should be compensated for that."