A Louisiana appeals court has vacated the second conviction that sent Mychal Bell, one of the Jena 6, to jail. Earlier this month, a district judge threw out Bell’s conviction for conspiracy to commit second-degree battery, agreeing with Bell’s supporters that the case should have been heard in juvenile court. On Friday, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Lake Charles vacated Bell’s battery conviction, but he remains in jail, where he has been since December, 2006.
This has been a classic case of discriminatory sentencing in which six Black teenagers are charged as adults and sentenced to long prison terms for a schoolyard fight. Certainly, it’s despicable that these six boys ganged up to beat up one student, and they should definitely have been punished for that. But they should have been treated as juvenile offenders and punished as juveniles.
There should also be equality in how the entire case is reported. The story starts back in September, 2006 after Justin Purvis, a Black student at Jena High School, got permission from his principal to sit under the “white tree” in the schoolyard. The tree got its name from the fact that it was a popular hangout for the school’s White students, a custom sufficiently entrenched to make a Black student feel the need to ask permission to sit under it. A day later, three nooses were hanging from the branches of the tree. Everyone who lives in the United States knows that nooses were used to lynch (publicly hang) Black men. Most often, the people who organized the lynchings were not even arrested. After the passage of civil and equal rights legislation, lynchings became rarer but the noose still remains—for Black people—a painful reminder of a very dark and violent time in US history. It has also become a symbol of hate that has been adopted by racist groups.
Jena High School’s Black students gathered under the tree to protest the nooses. Afterwards, District Attorney Reed Walters came to the school and told the demonstrating Black students that he “could end their lives with the stroke of a pen.” Three White students were suspended for hanging the nooses but the incident was generally written of as a prank. Tensions continued to escalate, eventually leading to a number of violent encounters. In one instance, a group of Black students was accosted outside a convenicence store by a White man who pulled a gun on them. The boys tussled with their assailant and eventually disarmed him before running away. The incident concluded with the Black boys being arrested and charged with the theft of a firearm. The White man who drew the gun on them was not prosecuted.
In another incident, a Black student was beaten up by White students at a party. Back at Jena High, a White student allegedly taunted this Black student with racial insults and references to the beating he had recieved at the party. This led a group of Black students, including the one who had been taunted, to gang up on the White student, who was punched, kicked, and stomped after he was knocked out. He was taken to hospital—for injuries sustained to his eyes, ears, and face. He was treated and discharged the same day. The Black students who beat him up were charged as adults and Mychal Bell—the only one incarcerated so far—was convicted of attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy. He was a star football player who was looking at college scholarships and a possible professional football career, but his conviction left him facing the prospect of coming out of prison at the age of 40.
Popular outrage against the convictions and support from diverse groups—including most recently music legend David Bowie—led to the charges gradually being reduced from attempted second degree murder to simple assault and battery. Mychal Bell, however, remains behind bars despite all his convictions being vacated. Yesterday, a three-judge panel decided that Bell would not be released from jail pending his November trial.
Thankfully, it seems that people are waking up and calling a spade a spade and hopefully, Mychal Bell will be out of jail soon and back on track to rebuilding his life.