Think what you will of LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, he has done a masterful job of pitting Jena 6 defendants against one another and the result will probably mean jail time for each Black teenager.
Of the six Black teens accused of beating Justin Barker, a White schoolmate last year in Jena, La., only Mychal Bell is known to have had a criminal record, which included two battery incidents and two charges of criminal damage to property. By first focusing on Bell, the D.A. has been able to portray the Jena 6 as hardened criminals and, equally important, force Bell into a compromising position. Recently, Bell struck a deal with the D.A. that includes testifying against his five co-defendants, if needed.
Bell is presently serving an 18-month sentence for the previous juvenile charges. In exchange for his pleading guilty to second-degree battery in connection with the attack on Barker, the prosecutor dropped aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit battery charges against Bell. He was sentenced to an additional 18 months to run concurrently with the term he is already serving. That means, in effect, Bell will serve a single 18-month sentence that will be counted twice, for his old juvenile offenses and for his recent plea. He has already served 10 months.
If Bell serves all of his time, he could be released in June. However, those close to the case expect him to be transferred to a group home rather than spending his remaining time behind bars.
With Bell being placed in the position of serving as the star witness against the other teens, they are more likely to be convicted if they refuse to follow Bell's example and cop a plea. This is the underbelly of an unfair judicial system. Upon entering his guilty plea, Bell admitted that he hit the White student, knocking him unconscious, and joining others in kicking him after he fell to the floor. Therefore, the D.A. will be using the most culpable of the six teens to obtain convictions against those who were less involved. That's the way the judicial system works – or doesn't work.
Ironically, most of the public attention has been focused on Bell, who remained in jail longer than the other fivc. Although he was 16 years old at the time of the attack and should have had his case adjudicated in juvenile court, he was wrongly charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder, charges that allow anyone 15 or older to be tried as adults under Louisiana law. When the prosecutor reduced the original charges to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit battery, Bell's case should have reverted to juvenile court. But it was not reassigned until Bell was convicted in adult court and a state appeals court threw out the conviction and remanded the case to juvenile authorities.
Even after a hearing for Bell, originally set for Sept. 20, was postponed, thousands descended on the tiny town of Jena. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and SCLC President Charles Steele Jr. were vocal in their support of Bell.
However, on Nov. 7, when four others were scheduled to enter their plea in Jena, there were no national civil rights leaders present. Busloads of students from around the nation did not roll into town. And radio talk show hosts, present in abundance on Sept. 20, were nowhere to be found. Instead, they had moved on, focusing on yet another demonstration in Washington in a futile effort to get the Justice Department to be more sensitive to the selective prosecution of African-Americans.
It is disturbing that civil rights leaders gave more support to the person who has agreed to testify against his co-defendants than the teens who had less to do with the beating.
If Bell testifies against four others – Robert Bailey Jr., Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, Theo Shaw —- they could be tried as adults because they were at least 17 years old at the time of the incident. The sixth defendant, like Bell, was a juvenile at the time.
Those anointed as leaders in our community are good at putting on one-day events. And apparently that's all Sept. 20 was. The question is whether they will show real leadership and lobby on behalf of the other five teens in Jena as hard as they worked for the release of Bell. If they can't do that, I think I'll skip such self-serving publicity stunts in the future.
George E. Curry, former editor-in-chief of Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service, is a keynote speaker, moderator, and media coach.