Monday, May 26th, 2008

Still Awaiting Justice In Jena

Eight months after 40,000 people converged on Jena, Louisiana, justice still awaits the six young men whose cases inspired one of the biggest civil rights marches in recent history.

This Friday, special judge Thomas Yeager will consider a motion made on behalf of the Jena 6 to remove Judge J.P. Mauffray from their cases. Mauffray had previously denied motions by 5 of the defendants to recuse him from their cases. But last week, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals appointed Yeager to preside over this unusual hearing in Mauffray’s own courtroom.

Supporters of the Jena 6 say that the motion to recuse Mauffray is part of an effort to give them a fair trial. “Judge Mauffray is the man at the center of Jena’s broken justice system and now he is forced to justify his bias in a court of law with the entire nation watching,” said James Rucker, Executive Director of Color of Change, the 400,000 member group that served as the key organizing body of last September’s protests.

Flashpoint For Racial Justice

Last summer, the Jena 6 cases became a flashpoint in the national discussion over racial justice, and more disturbingly, a catalyst for further hate incidents.

On August 31, 2006, two nooses were found on an oak tree at Jena High School, an event that polarized the student body along racial lines. The school principal recommended that the three white noose-hangers be expelled. But the LaSalle Parish School Board—advised by attorney J. Reed Walters, who as District Attorney would later prosecute the Jena 6—voted 7-1 instead to suspend the students. The only African American board member offered the dissenting vote.

After months of racial tensions, including incidents in which white Jena High student Justin Barker and others made racial insults at African American students, Barker was beaten by the boys who would become known as the “Jena 6”. (CORRECTION 5/27 : Of the Jena 6 defendants, only Mychal Bell has admitted to being involved in the beating of Justin Barker.) Barker went home hours after the fight and participated in an evening public ceremony.

But DA Walters charged the 6 African Americans with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit attempted second-degree murder. The disparity in the sentencing spurred calls for a massive September march in Jena.

In the two months following the demonstrations, at least 50 noose incidents were reported nationally, including one found on the door of a Black professor’s office at the Teacher’s College of Columbia University. New York Governor David Patterson recently signed a law making displaying a noose a felony crime.

Judicial Bias

In the first Jena 6 case to come to trial, an all-white jury convicted one of the Jena 6 defendants, Mychal Bell, in adult court. After Bell spent 10 months behind bars, an appeals court threw out the conviction saying Bell could not be tried as an adult and remanded the case to juvenile court. Bell was freed on $45,000 bail.

But just two weeks later, Judge Mauffray agreed with DA Walters’ motion to send Bell back to jail, on the grounds that Bell’s involvement in the beating of Justin Barker had violated his probation for prior convictions. Mauffray then sentenced Bell to 18 months in a juvenile facility.

Supporters of the Jena 6 say this was only one of the ways Mauffray demonstrated bias against the young Black men.

In his motion to recuse Mauffray, David Utter of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and attorney for Jena defendant Jesse Ray Beard, outlined a pattern of judicial bias.

Before Utter took Beard’s case, he writes in his motion, Mauffray told him that white beating victim Justin Barker was lucky that he did not “bleed to death”. Mauffray also called the Jena 6 “real troublemakers”, and discussed alleged incidents involving the defendants. Utter and others later investigated the rumored incidents and found them to be false.

In March, Mauffray told Beard’s lawyers, “Does anyone know when [Jesse Ray Beard] started his career? His first participation in a crime of violence? It was December 25, 2005.” Utter writes that, in response to a discussion about potential alternatives to incarceration, Mauffray scoffed and said, “Jesse Ray needs severe consequences, short term.”

A similar motion to recuse District Attorney Reed Walters, on the grounds of racial bias and conflict of interest, is pending.

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