In a small highly segregated rural Louisiana town of Jena in September 2006, a black student asked permission from school administrators to sit under the shade of a tree commonly reserved for the enjoyment of white students. School officials advised the black students to sit wherever they wanted and they did. The next day, three nooses, in the school colors, were hanging from the same tree. The Jena high school principal found that three white students were responsible and recommended expulsion. The white superintendent of schools over-ruled the principal and gave the students a three day suspension, saying that the nooses were “a youthful stunt.” Black students decided to resist and organized a sit-in under the tree to protest the lenient treatment given to the noose-hanging white students.
Racial tensions remained elevated throughout the fall. On Monday, December 4 2006, a white student who allegedly had been racially taunting black students in support of the students who hung the nooses got into a fight with black students. Allegedly, the white student was taken to the hospital treated, released, reportedly attended a social function later that evening.
As a result of this incident, six black Jena students were arrested and charged with attempted second degree murder. All six were expelled from school. The six charged were: 17-year-old Robert Bailey Junior whose bail was set at $138,000; 17-year-old Theo Shaw - bail $130,000; 18-year-old Carwin Jones--bail $100,000; 17-year-old Bryant Purvis--bail $70,000; 16 year old Mychal Bell, a sophomore in high school who was charged as an adult and for whom bail was set at $90,000; and a still unidentified minor.
On the morning of the trial, the District Attorney reduced the charges from attempted second degree murder to second degree aggravated battery and conspiracy. Aggravated battery in Louisiana law demands the attack be with a dangerous weapon. The prosecutor was allowed to argue to the jury that the tennis shoes worn by Bell could be considered a dangerous weapon.
When the pool of potential jurors was summoned, fifty people appeared, all white. The jury deliberated for less than three hours and found Mychal Bell guilty on the maximum possible charges of aggravated second degree battery and conspiracy. He faces up to a maximum of 22 years in prison.
The rest of the Jena 6 await similar trials. Theodore Shaw is due to go on trial shortly. Mychal Bell is scheduled to be sentenced July 31. If he gets the maximum sentence he will not be out of prison until he is nearly 40 years.
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