On Thursday, June 28, 2007, At the LaSalle Parish Courthouse in Jena, Louisiana, Mychal Bell was convicted of aggravated second degree assault and conspiracy to commit secondary degree aggravated assault. Mykal was convicted because jurors believed he had knocked a white student named Justin Barker unconscious with a single devastating blow to the head.
Mychal Bell was accused of participating in a conspiracy because his alleged victim was stomped by several other students as he lay on the ground. It was explained that the young black males who stomped Justin Barker were co-conspirators with Bell even if they had never agreed to a coordinated attack. According to law, because Bell’s single blow made the stomping possible, an informal conspiracy, or “combination” could be implied.
The alleged assault was “aggravated” because a dangerous weapon was used-namely tennis shoes. According to this reasoning, every fight
participant is guilty of aggravated assault unless he shows up naked. The law is designed to make it as easy as possible to put defendants away for as long as possible.
The Mychal Bell trial has attracted interest from around the globe-accounts have been published in South Africa, Russia, China, Australia and every flagship newspaper in America-with the curious exception of the New York Times. Correspondents invariably note that Jena has been the subject of public scrutiny since the morning in late August, 2006 when three nooses were found hanging from a tree in the high school square. The fact that Mychal Bell was tried by an all-white jury has fanned accusations of racism.
A gifted athlete and solid student with a promising future, Mychal Bell may be forty before he returns to the free world. Judge J.P. Mauffray will hand down his sentence on July 31st. Much has been said about the severity of the charges filed against the Jena 6, Mychal Bell and the co-conspirators. District Attorney Reed Walters originally accused the Jena 6 of attempted murder-charges sentences up to 100 years without parole. A worldwide outcry forced the prosecutor to back off a bit. Judge Mauffray’s sentence will
tell us how he views the proportionality issue.
But more basic questions abound. Is Mychal Bell guilty beyond a reasonable doubt? Did he receive a fair trial? And did Blane Williams, Mr. Bell’s court appointed attorney, give the trial a moment’s thought before entering the courtroom?
I have grown accustomed to all-white juries convicting poor black defendants, but this trial was something new. When “ineffective assistance of counsel” is covered in law school classrooms, this case may become the standard illustration. Throughout the three-day trial you could hear jaws hitting the floor as Blane Williams stumbled through his ill-conceived defense of his client. Hardened journalists were left scratching their heads. This was supposed to be an important trial. Why then, was Mychal Bell’s attorney so ill-prepared?
It’s pretty simple, actually. Court appointed attorneys aren’t paid well enough in most jurisdictions to seriously research the cases they handle. Take a client to trial and you are almost sure to lose money. Some attorneys are willing to take the occasional financial hit in the interest of justice; others are not. Blane Williams wanted Mychal Bell to take a plea offer. Mychal refused. Williams had no choice but to take the case to trial-but he was determined to put no more work into this case than the law allowed. And the law, my friends, allows defense attorneys to do very little if they are so inclined. You get the kind of justice you can afford to pay for.
Reflections in the wake of the Mychal Bell trial
* The ten student witnesses who testified at Mychal Bell’s trial were all white. In fact, most of them were part of a distinct minority within
the high school’s white student population who attended all-white schools in the country surrounding Jena until High School. (More on this below)
* Justin Cooper was the only witness at trial to testify that Mychal Bell kicked Justin Barker as the victim lay unconscious on the ground.
Since Justin Cooper was one of the boys who admitted to hanging the nooses at Jena High School at the beginning of the school year, he can hardly be seen as an objective or credible witness. Defense Attorney Blane Williams was apparently unaware of Cooper’s connection to the noose incident.
* Jessica Hooter was one of four trial witnesses who identified Mychal as the person who threw the first punch at Justin Barker. Two days after the assault occurred, Jessica was unable to identify the initial attacker. But as she explained at trial, “After I thought about it more, I remembered more.” In his closing remarks, Blane Williams never mentioned that she had embellished her earlier testimony. Perhaps he forgot.
* The single male juror graduated from High School with Justin Barker’s father. The tendency to sympathize with an old school buddy whosekid got punched and kicked in a one-sided assault is understandable. It also makes objectivity impossible.
* Midway through the trial, assault victim Justin Barker and his family were seen by ten witnesses (myself included) sharing a convivial meal with several of the students who had testified against Mychal Bell. This suggests that a number of “memory-enhancing” conversations about the incident have taken place between early December and late June. Jessica Hooter likely “remembered” that the unidentified attacker was Mykal Bell because this quickly became the orthodox story in the social circle she move in.
Ms. Martin’s list
* At trial, special education teacher Kristy Martin listed off the names of the boys who surrounded Justin Barker as if they were clear in her memory. Although she was forced to admit that she never saw a single student touch Justin Barker, Martin’s ability to name names seemed very convincing. Martin is the only witness thus far who has provided a list of attackers longer than three names.
* In a written statement, given immediately after the incident, Coach Wayne Spence states that he was taking names of rowdy students in the gym during the lunch hour. “I had a list that Ms. Martin obtained from me,” he wrote. This suggests that Kristy Martin specifically asked Spence for the list of names the day of the fight. This explains why she is the only witness to remember more than two or three members of the Jena 6. Most eye witnesses can’t identify a single assailant by name. Most of the students who gave eyewitness statements after the December 4 altercation at the school make references to “a bunch of black kids”.
The witness no one called
* Coach Benjy Lewis gave two statements immediately after the school incident in which he clearly states that Justin Barker was facing him when Malcolm Shaw (not Mychal Bell) struck Barker from behind. “I saw Malcolm Shaw hit Justin Barker with his right fist to the right side of Justin’s head, right around the temple,” Lewis wrote. “Justin went down face first, knocked out . . .” Most witnesses agree that a single punch knocked Barker out cold. The only adult who witnessed the punch says Mychal Bell didn’t throw it.
* In a signed statement given immediately after the altercation at the school, student Jesse Beard stated that moments after the assault Coach Manning asked him where Malcolm Shaw was.
* It isn’t hard to see why the prosecution didn’t call Lewis to the stand (his testimony would have devastated the state’s case); but how do we explain why defense attorney Blane Williams didn’t call the coach to testify?
* Several people (myself included) noticed Mychal Bell repeatedly handing his attorney pieces of eyewitness testimony during the trial. This suggests that Williams entered the courtroom utterly unprepared for trial.
The green jacket theory
* Two female students testified that the person who knocked Justin Barker cold was wearing a green jacket. Mychal Bell’s statement, given immediately after the incident, suggests that he was initially cleared of responsibility because he was wearing a black jacket. At trial, the “green jacket” witnesses were convinced that Mychal Bell was not the attacker-they knew Mychal and the guy in the green jacket was someone else.
* The “green jacket” identification means that we have at least three mutually contradictory eyewitness accounts of who struck Justin Barker: Mychal Bell, Malcolm Shaw, or an unidentified student in a green jacket.
* Both “green jacket” witnesses insist that Justin Barker was knocked cold, not by a punch to the temple, but by having his head slammed into a concrete bench. Coach Benjy Lewis says that Justin Barker was knocked cold from a punch from behind. Witnesses who name Mychal Bell as the attacker describe a face-to-face confrontation followed by a blow to the head that knocked Justin Barker out. Defense attorney Blane Williams never reflected on the evidence long enough to identify these obvious contradictions.
If Lewis is right; Bell is innocent
* The fact that Justin Barker cannot remember who hit him argues in favor of Coach Lewis’s blow-from-behind account. It must also be remembered that Lewis was the only adult who directly witnessed the assault. He was also the only non-partisan eye witness. If Lewis is telling the truth, the witnesses who identify Mychal Bell as the initial attacker are either confused or, like Jessica Hooter, they are victims of a false sense of concreteness produced by the continual retelling the story in the company of partisan friends.
* Most of the prisoners recently exonerated on the basis of unassailable DNA evidence were wrongfully convicted by confident
eyewitnesses. Memory doesn’t work like a photograph; recollections change dramatically with time. We often see what we want to see.
* All this contradictory evidence makes it impossible to identifyJustin Barker’s assailant with any confidence.
* All those identifying Mychal Bell were highly partisan observers clearly identified with one side of a longstanding and unresolved feud
between the “country” white students who hung the nooses in a tree at the high school and the black male athletes who were particularly outraged by this hate crime (see more on this below).
* On balance, the most persuasive testimony by far comes from Coach Lewis-and neither the prosecution nor the defense called Lewis to testify at Mychal Bell’s trial.
A chaotic scene
* In signed statements, several black and white eyewitnesses referred to students running to and from the scene of the assault. Justin Barker was clearly struck on the face and then intentionally kicked while he lay on the ground. However, it is impossible to determine which of Justin Barker’s bruises and abrasions were the result of intentional assault and which may have been the unintentional result of a panic-induced stampede. All witnesses agree that the scene was utterly chaotic with students moving wildly in every direction. Defense attorney Blane Williams never raised this obvious question.
* Several of the Jena 6 defendants freely admit that they were close to the altercation. This isn’t surprising when we realize that the shout of “fight” at a high school always brings students running to the scene.
“With a stroke of my pen”
* In early September, the three white students responsible for hanging nooses in a tree in the school courtyard were punished with a few days of in-school suspension. The noose incident was dismissed as a childish prank. The following day, black students staged a spontaneous protest rally under the tree where the nooses had been discovered. Several black male athletes took the lead in this protest-the same students who were eventually accused of attacking Justin Barker.
* The decision to treat the noose incident as a childish prank sparked a brief firestorm of media attention in which Jena school officials were frequently accused of racism.
* In early September, District Attorney Reed Walters addressed an emergency school assembly called in response to the spontaneous student protest. With a dozen fully uniformed police officers in the auditorium, Walters warned protest organizers that with a stroke of his pen he could take their lives away. Walters has admitted under oath that he made this remark. His words were not aimed at the entire student body, nor at black students in general-he was speaking to the student athletes we now call the Jena 6. After the demonstration under the tree, Robert Bailey, Carwin Jones, Mychal Bell, Theodore Shaw, Jesse Beard and Bryant Ray Purvis became
A descending spiral of violence
* Evidence suggests that some teachers and school administrators were empowered by Mr. Walters’ “stroke of my pen” remark. Defendants report that in the wake of the school assembly, several teachers became increasingly strict and adversarial in relation to the boys responsible for associating Jena High School with Jim Crow racism. It appears that some students responded to this change in attitude by withholding respect and acting out in ways that encouraged an even more authoritarian teacher response. Discipline referrals for the Jena 6 skyrocketed during the fall semester.
* In the period between Mr. Walter’s “stroke of my pen” threat in September and the assault on Justin Barker in early December, a series of physical altercations played out between the Jena 6 and the circle of boys who supported the hanging of the nooses. The white students had attended all-white schools in the countryside prior to coming to the integrated high school campus. They felt reassured by the segregated school courtyard and were intimidated by the suggestion that black students could sit wherever they wanted. Hence the nooses.
* The laughably light discipline handed down for this “childish prank” was perceived, correctly, as a triumph for students wishing to preserve a segregated school square.
A fire, a fight, and a firearm
* In signed statements, several white and black students mentioned a series of verbal altercations during the lunch hour preceding the attack on Justin Barker. The trash-talking was directly related to a fight at the Fair Barn three days earlier. On that occasion, Robert Bailey and a few of his friends were invited to an all-white student party by some of their white friends. When Robert entered the building he was punched in the face by a 22 year-old white male. In seconds, Robert was assaulted with beer bottles, punches and kicks in a virtual mirror image of the altercation at the high school three days later. The only differences were that the identify of the instigator in the Fair Barn incident was undisputed and that Robert remained conscious after the initial blow and was thus able to minimize the impact of the attack.
* The following morning, Robert Bailey and two of the friends who had come to his aid during the Fair Barn assault were leaving a local
convenience store when they encountered one of the country white males who had jumped Robert the night before. Fearing retaliation, the boy retreated to his truck and pulled out a pump-action, pistol-grip shotgun that looks like something the Terminator might have fancied. When Robert and his friends wrestled the weapon away from their would-be assailant they were charged with assault and theft. Once again, Jena’s New Jim Crow regime was reinforced.
* It is not unusual for residents of rural LaSalle Parish to drive around with firearms in their trucks. On May 10, 2007, Justin Barker was
arrested for bringing a rifle to school in his vehicle. A thorough search probably would have turned up several more illegal firearms in the school parking lot.
* The violent assault at the Fair Barn, the convenience store incident, and the assault at the school followed in the wake of a traumatic
school fire in late Novermber. Everyone associated with the school was in a state of shock akin to post traumatic stress syndrome. Concerned by the wave of violence, several teachers asked administrators not to reopen the school the Monday morning of the assault.
Running his mouth
* Student statements suggest that the student who attacked Justin Barker was responding to taunts that Robert Bailey “had his butt kicked” at the Fair Barn. In the course of this verbal jousting, several students report that Justin Barker “got up in Mychal’s face” and gave Mychal the finger. Tony Knapp, one of three boys who admitted to hanging nooses earlier in the school year, was also involved in this lunch hour altercation. At trial, District Attorney Reed Walters created the misleading impression that Barker was attacked by black thugs looking for a random white victim. He knew better.
* Several eyewitnesses recall that the initial punch was preceded by the shouted words, “This will teach you to run your mother f***ing mouth.” This statement, repeated by too many witnesses to be seriously doubted, makes no sense apart from the trash talking described in student statements.
The sins of the fathers
* This background information demonstrates that the black male students who attacked Justin Barker were bound to a steadily escalating chain of violence and counter-violence.
* This spiral of action and reaction was initiated by the September decision of school administrators to treat the noose incident as a childish prank. When Reed Walters threatened the Jena 6 with life imprisonment if they didn’t relinquish their constitutional right to denounce injustice, the boys were left with no legitimate avenue of protest. In the end, immature white and black males were left to their own devices. The consequences were as predictable as they were tragic.
* The ultimate responsibility for the violence at Jena High School lies at the feet of public officials who refused to acknowledge a hate crime
for what it was. The sins of the fathers are now being visited upon the children.
Please consider supporting the work of Friends of Justice, and keep us organizing across Texas and Louisiana! You can donate securely on Paypal by following this link. Thanks to all those who have already given!
Sign up for Action Updates by clicking the link to the right of this post, and entering your email. You’ll get an email when we post to the blog and when we have opportunities to take action!