As a Louisiana native I probably should have weighed in on the “Jena Six.” Like Michael, and many others, my initial reluctance has been being unsure of what really happened due to sketchy and conflicting reporting. What I can say at this point is that the decisions from a legal perspective have in each aspect of the case been very reasonable. The reporting has obscured that fact at times by declining to mention the nature of the attack, that there is no evidence it was associated with the “nooses” incident or the criminal history of Mychal Bell and the other defendants.
That the legal decisions have been reasonable does not make them right, but any decision is likely to be seen as less than satisfactory by someone. They have all been defensible however, and in the end the “Jena Six” are being tried on an appropriate charge. I give you Reed Walters, the prosecutor, defending his conduct in the New York Times:
I cannot overemphasize how abhorrent and stupid I find the placing of the nooses on the schoolyard tree in late August 2006. If those who committed that act considered it a prank, their sense of humor is seriously distorted. It was mean-spirited and deserves the condemnation of all decent people.
But it broke no law. I searched the Louisiana criminal code for a crime that I could prosecute. There is none.
Similarly, the United States attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, who is African-American, found no federal law against what was done.
Was this a “schoolyard fight?”
Conjure the image of schoolboys fighting: they exchange words, clench fists, throw punches, wrestle in the dirt until classmates or teachers pull them apart. Of course that would not be aggravated second-degree battery, which is what the attackers are now charged with. (Five of the defendants were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder.) But that’s not what happened at Jena High School.
The victim in this crime, who has been all but forgotten amid the focus on the defendants, was a young man named Justin Barker, who was not involved in the nooses incident three months earlier. According to all the credible evidence I am aware of, after lunch, he walked to his next class. As he passed through the gymnasium door to the outside, he was blindsided and knocked unconscious by a vicious blow to the head thrown by Mychal Bell. While lying on the ground unaware of what was happening to him, he was brutally kicked by at least six people.
Imagine you were walking down a city street, and someone leapt from behind a tree and hit you so hard that you fell to the sidewalk unconscious. Would you later describe that as a fight?
Only the intervention of an uninvolved student protected Mr. Barker from severe injury or death. There was serious bodily harm inflicted with a dangerous weapon — the definition of aggravated second-degree battery.
Given the facts as best as I have been able to determine, this is a reasonable view of the case. Whatever else was going on at the time at Jena High School, it shouldn’t be allowed to obscure or justify a vicious assault on a student, especially when it has nothing or little to do with those other events.
Update: Brendan Nyhan and others have brought up the point that Mr. Reed is eliding past the point that they were originally charged with attempted second degree murder. That may have been inappropriate, though we don’t know that given that others stopped them before they finished whatever was being attempted, and some of the witness testimony certainly might support such a charge. However, It is hardly unususual for prosecutors to start with the most serious charge which might be warranted before settling on a lesser one. The point is that the actual charge is second degree aggravated battery.
It is also said Mr. Barker was a racist, which he may well be, and that racist websites are holding him up as a hero, which goes beyond irrelevant. Mychal Bell however hardly gets a pass as a potential racist given his conduct though, and more to the point Mr. Barker’s opinions on race are not the issue either.
As for the pistol grip shotgun incident, the problem there seems to be that the stories are conflicting and hard for the prosecutor to get a handle on. It also was earlier than the attack on Justin Barker when it seems the prosecutors office decided to crack down, and when the violence reached its most dangerous point. Still, if there is compelling evidence that the young man in question committed a crime, it in no way mitigates what happened to Mr. Barker. These comments from Bean at Lawyers, Guns and Money sums up the problem with the commentary I continue to hear (and bean is far more reasonable than most, but why pick on the deluded:)
Yes, “Free the Jena 6? has become a rallying cry around this whole sorry mess, but I’m not sure even the protesters believe the six should get out of jail free if they were involved in the attack on Justin Barker.
It’s just that so many others ought to be going to jail as well.
That certainly isn’t what we hear from the protesters. Many do feel they should get out of jail free, and the problem is why protest in his favor at all? He committed aggravated battery! The protests speak of freeing the Jena Six because that is the focus, not that others should go to jail. Sadly, they want to invert the injustice (assuming the others mentioned should go to jail) and give similar charges to them and free the “Jena Six.” No putting more reasonable aims in the protesters mouths will change that.
The reasoning behind the decision to charge Mychal Ball as an adult is flimsy at best. His attack was by surprise (so the DA says)? Still not enough to try to throw a high school kid in jail for double-digit years.
Michael Bell is in high school, but he was a star athlete of 17 years when he did this with a history of violence including 4 previous violent crimes, two committed while on probation for a previous battery conviction. Bell has had numerous chances and threw them and a Division I athletic scholarship away. He is no innocent naif caught up in an isolated incident. While it might be argued he shouldn’t be tried as an adult, the case for doing so is not in any way flimsy.
I’m not sure how it’s worded in the Louisiana code, admittedly, but the resort to “my black friend says so too” immediately makes me suspicious.
It doesn’t make me suspicious. Given the constant emphasis, including in his post, of the race of people involved on the prosecutorial side, the jury, the witnesses, etc., pointing out that not only white figures in the cases agreed is unfortunately quite necessary. You can’t have it both ways. Bean and others have made race central to every aspect of the case, not just where it is obviously relevant. Reed didn’t choose for it to be seen that way, the protesters and his critics have.
For a very reasonable view of the case I suggest Richard Thompson Ford, despite ignoring the students history of violence and accepting at face value some claims which may not be true (Was there really a “white tree?” Many claim there wasn’t.)
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