U.S. Attorney Calls Noose Display 'Hate Crime,' Explains Lack of Charges

By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Under a barrage of questions from House Judiciary Committee members, a federal prosecutor said yesterday that the hanging of nooses at a high school in Jena, La., constituted a hate crime but that charges were not brought because the students allegedly responsible were juveniles.

The explanation by Donald Washington, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, came early in an emotionally charged hearing. It was the first congressional session to address year-long racial tension in the rural town that led to fistfights and other interracial confrontations, the prosecution of six black high school students in the beating of a white student and a large civil rights march on the defendants' behalf.

Washington, who is black, faced sharp questioning from black committee members about why he did not intervene as racial strife in the small town grew after the nooses, a historic symbol of racial lynching, were hung in a tree outside the high school, and why he did not engage the white prosecutor who charged the black juveniles as adults.

One student, Mychal Bell, was convicted of aggravated battery by an all-white jury and faced as much as 22 years in prison. A state appeals court dismissed the verdict, ruling that Bell should not have been tried in an adult court. Bell was released from prison after nine months but was recently re-incarcerated on a probation violation.

The white students who hung the nooses were suspended and forced to attend disciplinary courses. Jena High School's principal, who is white, sought to expel them, but was overruled by the school superintendent, who is also white and called the nooses a schoolboy prank.

Thousands of people marched in Jena last month to protest what they called the overzealous prosecution of the six black students, who originally were charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.

Washington told the committee he could not stop the LaSalle Parish prosecutor, Reed Walters, from proceeding with the charges because the federal government's authority in the case is limited. "I want to assure this committee that the Department of Justice was engaged," he said.

Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Tex.) criticized that response. "I want you to tell me why you, the first black [Western District of Louisiana] U.S. district attorney, did not do more, and I want to know what you're going to do to get Mychal Bell out of jail!"

"I did intervene," Washington said. "I will tell you that, just like you were offended [by the charges], I was offended."

Washington said for the first time publicly that the department is gathering evidence to determine whether there are racial disparities in Louisiana's judicial system and in its application of justice.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company