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Residents: Nooses spark school violence, divide town

  • Story Highlights
  • Judge vacates one conviction against a teen accused in a high school fight
  • Attorneys to file emergency appeal to ask for a stay of teen's sentencing
  • Victim's mother: Charges warranted because attack could have killed her son
  • Attack, other violence came after white students hung nooses from campus tree
  • Next Article in U.S. »
By Susan Roesgen and Eliott C. McLaughlin
CNN
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JENA, Louisiana (CNN) -- A judge Tuesday vacated one of two convictions against a teen involved in a violent, racially charged incident in Louisiana that left another teen hospitalized.

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Mychal Bell, 17, faces up to 22 years in prison after his aggravated battery conviction.

Defense lawyers argued -- and 28th Judicial District Court Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. agreed -- that a charge of conspiracy to commit second-degree aggravated battery should have been brought against Mychal Bell in juvenile court rather than adult court.

But he left standing Bell's conviction on a second-degree aggravated battery charge.

The teen's attorneys said they would file an emergency appeal and ask for a stay of Bell's September 20 sentencing date until the appellate court rules.

A regular kid

Bell was like a lot of boys his age, his mother says.

The always-smiling 16-year-old often spent weekends on the couch, munching Little Debbie snack cakes, watching football and dreaming of the day he would join his heroes in the NFL.

That was before police arrested the star running back and five other teens -- dubbed the "Jena 6" -- on attempted murder and conspiracy charges after a December 4, 2006, fight at the local high school. Three of the six, including Bell, later had their charges reduced to aggravated battery.

Bell, now 17, sits in a cell in Jena, waiting to learn whether he will spend the next two decades in prison.

"He's not the same. He's grown up a lot since he's been in there. He's not the same ol' smiling Mychal he used to be," his mother, Melissa Bell, says. "I pray that the judge will go easy on him."

Mychal Bell wasn't convicted of attempted murder. The charges were diluted to aggravated battery and conspiracy, but undiluted is the outrage over the fates of Bell and the rest of the Jena 6. Video Watch deputies subdue Bell's father after the conviction »

Many in this sleepy town of 3,000, where 12 percent of the population is black, are calling Bell's June conviction a case of Jim Crow justice.

They question why Bell's public defender never called a witness in the trial. They question the all-white jury that took three hours to convict him. They question charges they say are wildly overblown. They question why the teen was tried as an adult.

And they say the fight never would have happened if not for the nooses.

A threat or a prank?

In September 2006, as the school year kicked off, a black Jena High School student asked the vice principal if he and some friends could sit under an oak tree where the white students typically congregated.

Out in the Open
A high school fight. A black teen convicted by an all-white jury. Soaring racial tensions.
Tonight 8 p.m. ET

Told by the vice principal they could sit wherever they pleased, the student and his pals plopped down under the sprawling branches of a shade tree in the campus courtyard.

The next day, students arrived at school to find three nooses hanging from those branches.

"I seen them hanging. I'm thinking the KKK, you know, were hanging nooses. They want to hang somebody. Real nooses, the ones you see on TV, are the kind of nooses they were," Robert Bailey, 17, one of the Jena 6, told the syndicated radio show "Democracy Now!"

The school's principal recommended expulsion for those behind the nooses, according to the local newspaper in nearby Alexandria. Instead, The Town Talk reported, a school district committee overruled the recommendation and suspended three white students for three days for hanging the nooses, a gesture written off as a prank.

"Toilet paper, that's a prank, you know what I'm saying?" Bailey told the radio show. "Nooses hanging there -- nooses ain't no prank."

A series of scuffles ensued over the next three months as racial tension at the school became palpable.

The district attorney was summoned to address the student body. Off-campus fights were reported. Bailey said he had a beer bottle broken over his head in one incident, a shotgun pulled on him in another.

On November 30, someone torched the school's main academic building. The arson remains unsolved, but many suspect it's linked to the discord strangling Jena High.

The attack

Four days after the arson, several students jumped a white classmate, Justin Barker, knocking him unconscious before stomping and kicking him.

Parents of the Jena 6 say they heard Barker was hurling racial epithets. Barker's parents say he did nothing to provoke the beating.

Barker was taken to the hospital with injuries to both eyes and ears as well as cuts. His right eye had blood clots, said his mother, Kelli Barker. Justin Barker was treated and released that day.

Bell, Bailey, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and an unidentified juvenile -- all black teens -- were arrested and charged with attempted murder. The weapons used, according to the charges -- shoes. Their bails were set at between $70,000 and $138,000. Watch Purvis' mother say her son heard the 'lick' that leveled Barker Video

On Tuesday, LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters reduced the charges against Jones and Shaw to second-degree aggravated battery, the same charge on which Bell was convicted.

Only Bell remains in jail, on a $90,000 bond, and the judge has refused to lower it, citing Bell's criminal record, which includes four juvenile offenses -- two simple battery charges among them.

The Jena 6 say they are innocent. Bailey told CNN that by the time he arrived at the fight, students and coaches had broken it up.

"When a fight breaks out, all the kids just run to see a fight. That's just how it was," he said. "You really couldn't see nothing. So when I'm running to see what's going on, I got down there to the fight, it was over."

Attorneys ask judge to reconsider

Bell is scheduled for a September 20 sentencing hearing where he faces up to 22 years in prison. The other five await their days in court.

The case is getting international media attention -- a buzz that has drawn the NAACP and civil rights stalwarts such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III -- but many in Jena are skeptical the boys can get a fair trial.

"Jena has been a community that has had self-imposed segregation probably since the '50s. They never got the memo," said radio host Tony Brown, who coined the name Jena 6.

Brown, who hosts a statewide radio newsmagazine from Alexandria, where he has lived since 1991, says there are still "righteous people" in Jena. However, he said, there is little commingling among black and white residents and the town often abides by "a Jim Crow mentality."

The mothers of Bell and Bailey concur, but Caseptla Bailey insists, "Jena's a good place to live. It's home. It's something that's in our hearts."

Kristi Boyett, a white resident, is not so nostalgic. She and her family are leaving Jena "because of the racist stuff that's going on here," she said.

She fears for her children's safety in the public schools, she said, and she's not surprised that racial tension in Jena has reached a breaking point.

"That's the way this town's always been. I've lived here for 16 years, and it's been segregated since we lived here," she said.

'We lost Jena'

Other longtime residents, however, paint a more harmonious portrait of Jena and blame the media for casting their town in a negative light. Mayor Murphy McMillan declined to be interviewed, saying only, "The media is making our town look bad."

Paula Brewer, who grew up in Jena, told The Town Talk in Alexandria that "everybody talks to everybody" and there are no racial boundaries in the central Louisiana hamlet.

"Where did Jena go in all this?" she asked the newspaper. "We lost Jena. We aren't what they are calling us -- racist and ignorant. Jena is a good town with good people."

Though some say race drove the decision to charge the teens with attempted murder, Walters released a statement last year saying no one was charged "based on who they are." He has made no public comment since.

The victim's mother says she, too, believes the charges are warranted and not based on race. Had the attackers not been pulled off her son, she said, he could have been killed.

"I wish to goodness it wouldn't have happened," Kelli Barker said. "And I hate it for them parents. I mean, I can only imagine, but I also have to think about my child and my family."

Advocates for the Jena 6 aren't saying the boys should be let off if they indeed pummeled Justin Barker. Rather, they're saying the charges should match the crime -- and that the juvenile court should handle the teens' cases.

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Brown said he will use his radio show as a platform to push for justice until an appellate court throws out Bell's conviction and the remaining Jena 6 see a fair trial.

Brown said of his rationale, "My grandma used to tell me, 'You can't hang a thief for murder,' and that's what they're doing in Jena." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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