Slowly, grindingly so, the complexity of the Jena Six case is making its way to the media. The nasty little secrets that nobody cares to share with those outside the Jena family, especially to those lugging around cameras or notepads, is being aired. The stench of our dirty laundry is finally filling the nostrils of the state-wide media. Whether or not the national media has the attention span for details inconvenient to their purpose remains to be seen. If the emerging facts weaken the argument that a prejudiced district attorney in a racist, southern town railroaded six innocent black students, the national media may not have the stomach to report the shades of gray.
There’s a new team of lawyers in town to defend Mychal Bell, the first of the Jena Six tried for the December 4, 2006, attack on a fellow student at Jena High School. Led by Attorney Bob Noel, the group of defenders who replaced Blaine Williams— the much maligned court-appointed lawyer who called no witnesses in his defense of Bell, whose case ended in a conviction of second degree battery and conspiracy to commit the same—are discovering the logic of his strategy. Riding a wave of attention and support for Mychal Bell among the national race-based community, Noel stated his intent to “flood that judge with motions” in an attempt to get Bell’s conviction overturned. These motions are having the unintended consequence of opening up for public consumption what the district attorney, the local school board, and other officials have not been willing or able to reveal: At least one of the Jena Six is a repeat offender with a troubling criminal record of violence and destruction.
In a front page article in the August 25 edition of the Alexandria Town Talk, banner headlines announced, “BELL DENIED BOND DUE TO CRIMINAL HISTORY.” The article went on to reveal that Bell has been convicted of five violent crimes, with hearings on at least three violations of parole pending. Of course, this does not include incidents that were “overlooked” or “smoothed over” without an arrest. The people of Jena are not surprised. This is a small town; nothing escapes notice here. We simply do not gossip about one of our own to outsiders, at least not on camera where the whole world, and more specifically, the gang down at the corner shop, will see. In fact, the record of Mychal Bell would still be a secret if Noel, in a moment of bravado, had not thrown down the gauntlet in front of the cameras of the world, declaring war against the district attorney and the local judge. By filing the bail reduction motion, he opened the gate for Bell’s criminal past to be exposed.
District Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr., is no local hick judge. He is an experienced, career judge with a mind as sharp as a tack. He has entertained lawyers with much more impressive pedigrees than Noel or his team; he will not be intimidated. Locally, he is considered to be a fair-minded judge—too fair-minded by some conservatives—who attempts to work with young people that appear before his court. Hopefully, Noel will learn this lesson before he does further damage to the cause of Mychal Bell. The motion to overturn the conviction and have Bell retried as a juvenile instead of an adult sounds like a wonderful idea. The problem with that is evident: The exact same judge who just presided over Bell’s conviction as an adult will be presiding over the case if it is thrown into juvenile court. With his criminal record as a juvenile, Bell’s conviction in the December 4 attack on Justin Barker would force Judge Mauffray to lock him up until he is 21 years old. That is a four year sentence for Bell. As an adult, Mychal Bell, whose juvenile record can’t play into consideration for sentencing, is a first time offender: It is very likely he could be sentenced less than a year, with time served counted towards his sentence. Judge Mauffray is noted for leniency with first time offenders.
Blaine Williams, who claimed he put the best interest of his client before his own reputation as a trial lawyer in this case, certainly knew these things as he advised his client to plea bargain. Williams all but begged the public to examine his actions by stating in an interview, “My actions in this case may be the topic of review by law professors one day; it may become a case study.” Williams, a black lawyer, knew that reckless motions tossed around to catch the attention of a crusade hungry media would do his client no good. Hopefully, Bob Noel, a white lawyer, will reach that conclusion quickly before Judge Mauffray, backed into a corner under the scrutiny of an international microscope, is forced to abandon his lenient nature and find a “middle-of-the-road” sentence for Mychal Bell.
What’s on the horizon? Shortly, people are going to start wondering how Mychal Bell and others could get away with a reign of terror that involved intimidation of fellow students and members of their own neighborhoods. Where were the coaches, the school officials, law enforcement, and parents? Why were these kids not restricted from extracurricular activity when caught in mischief? Why were they not suspended for at least one football game or from a few days of school for the troubles they caused? The cynics among us will conclude that a few battered boys and girls and a couple thousand dollars worth of vandalism and destruction is a small price to pay for touchdowns and victories on Friday night. The conspiracy theorists among us will conclude that a racist district attorney concocted the entire story to support his vendetta against an innocent black student.
The discovery that the Jena Six did not receive prejudicial treatment but instead received preferential treatment will come as a shock to those outside of Jena. The residents here heard whispers of this all along. Certainly, the adults and officials who “handled” these episodes will convince themselves that they had the best interest of the boys at heart, considering their potential as college or even professional athletes. Nobody held them accountable for their actions. Now, perhaps the people of Jena should hold these officials accountable. The national media will find it difficult to delve into those questions. Yet the facts are easily attainable. The story is detailed in the sworn testimony of the Bell trial, court records made available to the press, and the reports of the FBI who have been investigating this story since two weeks after the nooses showed up in a tree at Jena High School. The Jena Times, our local weekly newspaper that has been criticized for biased coverage, has thoroughly reported these documents. Some state outlets are partially presenting these facts. The national media must resist the urge to edit these reports through the eyes of Oliver Stone to offer America what it wants: A scapegoat for its national sin of racism.
Rumors will continue to abound. Every day there are new reports of the KKK showing up in town. One lady claimed she actually saw two white men with hoods in their hands enter the “Gotta Go” store to purchase gasoline. Someone at Wal-Mart heard that a black boy was beaten with brass knuckles by a couple of white kids after the football jamboree last weekend. Were any arrests made? A neighbor of someone who overheard a city official claims that one of the Jena Six, released on bond awaiting trial, was arrested again for breaking and entering. The scuttlebutt is that thousands of blacks and liberals from around the country are coming to Jena on September 20, the sentencing date for Mychal Bell, and will riot if he is not released. They say it will be Watts revisited.
The national media will be enticed by the rumor that the all white jury in Mychal Bell’s trial was not fairly chosen. An accusation has been made that the town officials have not purged the rolls from which potential jurors are called for seven years. Those black individuals who were issued summons to appear as potential jurors may no longer reside at the addresses listed. Bell may have had no hope of having a black juror at his trial. His best hope for overturning his conviction may be in this sloppy recordkeeping. And just what other trials involving minorities will be examined from the last seven years if Bell’s attorneys are successful? This slowly developing rumor is potentially the most explosive item so far involving the Jena Six.
The complexity of the Bell case mirrors life in general. Nobody in Jena wants to believe that six of our own children, who we’ve watched grow up in Little League and Sunday school, could have first planned, and then executed an attempt on the life of a fellow student. Nobody in Jena wants to believe that our duly elected district attorney, Reed Walters, would try to destroy the lives of six innocent students who we’ve come to respect as football stars that represent our high school every Friday night each fall. The truth probably falls somewhere in the middle. Second degree murder may be too harsh a charge but the Jena Six may still be guilty of criminal activity. In a complicated society, those two concepts are not mutually exclusive. My hope is that the lawyers for the remaining members of the Jena Six learn the lessons of Mychal Bell’s trial. My prayer is that God give Judge J.P. Mauffray the wisdom to find an acceptable medium between justice and mercy in the case of Mychal Bell and the Jena Six.