By Alan Bean
Almost five years have passed since I wrote a blog post called “Jena 6 to Law School”. Back then, Theo Shaw was ready to graduate from the Louisiana State University, Monroe and was dreaming of law school.
Theo Shaw is dreaming no more. As this article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports, Theo has been awarded a full-ride scholarship to attend the School of Law at the University of Washington.
Since graduation, Theo has been working with the New Orleans office of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a job that frequently saw him working with prison inmates. Interviewed in 2012, Shaw explained why he wanted to be a defense attorney.“This could be my ego,” he said, “but I really think I could be an awesome trial attorney as far as being able to advocate on behalf of other people – being able to tell their story to a jury in a compelling way.”
Now, thanks to the University of Washington, Theo will get his chance.
This isn’t just another feel-good redemption story. Theo grew up on the poor side of Jena and, as a high school student, was much more interested in football than books. But being indicted on grossly overblown charges in 2007 changed everything. Only a miracle saved Theo and his co-defendants . . . and there aren’t many of those in the criminal justice system.
Until Friends of Justice, the non-profit I direct, got involved in the case, no one from outside central Louisiana had taken an interest in the Jena 6. It took months of community meetings, media outreach, and coalition building to get the Jena story big enough to attract pro bono legal representation. In the end, however, the defendants benefited from the best legal council money can buy and Theo Shaw knew he just dodged a bullet. He was one of the lucky ones, and that gave him a sense of obligation.
Theo has always denied involvement in the beat-down of Justin Barker, and I am inclined to believe him. Eye witness testimony taken on the day of the assault is so inconsistent that, had any of these cases gone to trial, it would have been very difficult to win a conviction . . . unless you had an attorney like Blaine Williamson who rested his case without calling a single witness.
But Theo wasn’t stuck with Blaine Williamson clone; he had a top-flight cadre of attorneys defending him headed by Rob McDuff, one of the top civil rights attorneys in Mississippi. The Jena 6 saga died as soon as 50,000 protesters left town in September of 2007, but, though it took DA Reed Walters a while to admit as much, the legal fight was over.
All six Jena defendants have made the most of their second chance, but Theo Shaw would never be satisfied with a college diploma, a decent job and a couple of kids–he wanted to be an attorney. This isn’t just about making money (defense attorneys make well under six figures unless they represent rich folks); it’s about paying a debt. A debt of gratitude.
Louisiana almost threw Theo Shaw away. This state – which discards black men and boys like pecan shells, like potato peels and coffee grounds — nearly added Shaw to its refuse pile, to its towering heap of incarcerated bodies.
A Louisiana prosecutor had Shaw charged with attempted murder, alleging that he participated in an attack at Jena High School, a high school so simmering with racial tension that three white students there had hung a noose from a tree.
Shaw and the other young black men who became known as Jena 6 were presented to the world as the epitome of savagery. They needed to be charged with attempted murder for sending a white schoolmate to the emergency room. It didn’t matter that he was soon discharged or that he was feeling well enough to attend a school event the next night. The Jena 6 needed to be taught a lesson. They needed to be thrown away.
But in September 2007, several thousand people from across the country converged in Jena and expressed outrage at Louisiana’s attempt to permanently ruin the young men’s lives. Shaw, whose inability to post bail had left him in jail seven months, was eventually released. Though he insists that he played no role in the attack on the student, in court Shaw pleaded no contest to misdemeanor simple battery.
Almost eight years after that massive march in Jena, Shaw is breaking free of Louisiana. He will enroll this fall at the School of Law at the University of Washington. That law school, which U.S. News and World Report puts in the country’s top 30, has chosen Shaw as one of the incoming class’ five William H. Gates Public Service Law Scholars. It’s a full scholarship, covering tuition, books and even some money for room and board and incidental expenses.
“You have already shown yourself to be a person of commitment and drive,” the letter congratulating Shaw reads. “Your participation as a Gates Scholar will help us continue to build our law school community, and will also help in making our world a better place.”
We wouldn’t be talking about Shaw’s potential to improve the world if he were still in prison. And he’d probably be in prison without that mobilization on behalf of the Jena 6. Those protesters didn’t know Shaw personally. They may not have even been able to call his name, but, he said Monday, “They knew me, they knew us, through history.”
It’s a history that includes young black boys being thrown away as trash. It’s a history that’s bigger than Louisiana’s.
Shaw said in a May 2014 interview that he was so unconcerned with school that he thinks he was ranked dead last in his senior class. Black, poor, uneducated and male in Louisiana. What better candidate for being thrown away like trash?
All the more reason, perhaps, that the state of Louisiana, in the form of LaSalle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters, had no qualms about throwing Shaw away.
It was widely reported that before the incident leading to Shaw’s arrest, but while racial tensions at Jena were simmering, Walters warned a Jena High assembly that he could change their lives “with the stroke of a pen.”
Read entire article here.