Mychal Bell plea agreement may herald conclusion of Jena 6 cases

I'm going to post this Howard Witt story from the Chicago Tribune in its entirety.  It was posted to the Tribune's website minutes ago.

By Howard Witt

Tribune Senior Correspondent
Chicago Tribune  

The district attorney in the racially-charged Jena 6 case in Louisiana agreed to a plea bargain Monday that sharply reduced the charges against the first of the six black teenagers who was facing trial, while attorneys for other defendants said the prosecutor appeared eager to avoid taking their cases to court as well.

LaSalle Parish District Atty. Reed Walters, whose initial decision to charge the black teenagers with attempted murder for beating a white youth was condemned as excessive by civil rights leaders, dropped a conspiracy charge against Mychal Bell, 17, and agreed to let him plead guilty to a juvenile charge of second-degree battery, with a sentence of 18 months and credit for time he has served in jail over the last year.

District Judge J.P. Mauffray approved the plea agreement Monday afternoon, just three days before Bell's trial in juvenile court was to have begun. Bell's attorneys said Walters offered them the plea agreement last Thursday, a week after a coalition of U.S. media companies successfully sued Mauffray to force him to open the trial to the public and the press.

"This case has been a very difficult chapter in the town's life and for the individuals involved," said David Utter, an attorney for another of the Jena 6
defendants who was charged as a juvenile. "My sense is that the district attorney would like to close this chapter now."

Utter and attorneys for several other Jena 6 defendants confirmed that they were engaged in plea negotiations with the district attorney, heralding a potential conclusion to the controversial case that drew more than 20,000 civil rights protesters to Jena in September and earned the town a portrayal in the national media as a racist backwater.

The decision to reduce the charges against Bell was the latest turnabout for Walters, who had vowed to aggressively prosecute the six black youths for their alleged roles in jumping Justin Barker as he emerged from the gymnasium at Jena High School on Dec. 4, 2006, and kicking him while he lay briefly unconscious.

The incident capped months of racial unrest in the small Louisiana town set off when three white students hung nooses from a tree traditionally used by whites at the high school after black students sought permission to sit beneath its shade.

Black students and their parents regarded the noose incident as a hate crime and demanded that the white perpetrators be expelled, but school officials dismissed the incident as a prank and issued lesser punishments. A series of fights ensued between black and white youths, both on and off campus. But civil rights leaders asserted that the schools and the courts in Jena treated black students more harshly than whites for similar offenses.

After the Jena story gained national attention last spring, Walters backed away from the attempted murder charges and instead charged the six black teenagers with aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. He tried Bell on those charges as an adult in June and won a conviction, but a state appeals court reversed the verdict in September, ruling that Bell should have been prosecuted as a juvenile.

Since then, Walters has come under growing political pressure to conclude the Jena 6 cases. Local leaders had been dreading a drawn-out series of criminal trials that would have kept Jena in the spotlight throughout 2008. And Louisiana's outgoing governor, Kathleen Blanco, directly pressed Walters in September not to pursue an appeal of the decision that struck down Bell's adult conviction.

Walters said in a statement Monday that he hopes to have the remaining Jena 6 cases resolved "early next year."

Before Walters made his plea bargain offer, Bell's attorneys said they had been preparing pre-trial motions seeking to recuse both the prosecutor and Mauffray from the case. The attorneys said evidence contained in those motions would have embarrassed both men.

"A trial would be very bad for the town, very bad for Reed Walters, very bad for anybody in Jena associated with the process, and it could turn out very bad for the defendants as well," said Alan Bean, head of a small civil rights group called Friends of Justice who was the first activist to call attention to the Jena case. "It had the potential for being a perfect storm in which everybody lost."  Parents on both sides of the case agreed.

"If the district attorney makes an offer to us and my son doesn't have to do any jail time, that would be fine," said Tina Jones, who insists that her son, Jena 6 defendant Bryant Purvis, was not involved in the school attack. "I'm ready to get this all over with."

Plea bargains "would be the best solution, as long as they don't get away with no punishment at all," said David Barker, father of Justin Barker, the school beating victim. "This case has taken its toll on everybody. Justin has ulcers now. Letting it drag on for years would just be additional stress for him."

Bell's attorneys said they agreed to the plea bargain to spare the former high school football star the danger of being convicted of more serious charges and also to win early release from juvenile custody. 

In October, Mauffray sentenced Bell to 18 months in a juvenile facility for four prior juvenile convictions for battery and destruction of property. But under the terms of Monday's plea agreement, that time will be served concurrently with the new 18-month sentence for the Dec. 4 attack, and Bell will get credit for the nine months he spent in jail while awaiting trial. His attorneys said he could be released by June.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *