Saturday, September 22, 2007

The Jena Dilemma

JENA, La. (AP) -- "A judge on Friday denied a request to release a teenager whose arrest in the beating of a white classmate sparked this week's civil rights protest in Louisiana. Mychal Bell's request to be freed while an appeal is being reviewed was rejected at a juvenile court hearing, effectively denying him any chance at immediate bail, a person familiar with the case told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because juvenile court proceedings are closed.

Earlier, Bell's mother emerged from the hearing in tears, refusing to comment.

Bell, 17, was convicted of aggravated second-degree battery, which could have led to 15 years in prison. But his conviction was thrown out by a state appeals court that said he could not be tried on the charge as an adult because he was 16 at the time of the beating.

"This is why we did not cancel the march," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, an organizer of Thursday's rally along with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the NAACP. "When they overturned Mychal's conviction, everyone said we won."

Jackson said in an interview Friday that federal intervention is needed to protect Bell's rights. Sharpton said he has scheduled meetings in Washington with congressional leaders to discuss the Jena Six case.

At a separate closed hearing Friday, a judge refused a request from defense attorneys to remove Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. from Bell's case, said John Jenkins, father of one of Bell's co-defendants.

Defense lawyers have complained that Mauffray set a high bail for Bell - $90,000 - prior to his conviction in the Barker beating. Mauffray had cited Bell's criminal record, which included juvenile arrests for battery and damage to property, in setting the bail.

On Thursday, the case drew thousands of protesters to this tiny central Louisiana town to rally against what they see as a double standard of justice for blacks and whites. The march was one of the biggest civil rights demonstrations in years.

The case dates to August 2006, when a black Jena High School student asked the principal whether blacks could sit under a shade tree that was a frequent gathering place for whites. He was told yes. But nooses appeared in the tree the next day.

Three white students were suspended but not criminally prosecuted. LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters has said he could find no state law covering the act.

The incident was followed by fights between blacks and whites that culminated in the attack on Justin Barker, who was knocked unconscious on school grounds. According to court testimony, his face was swollen and bloodied, but he was able to attend a school function that night.

Five of the teens were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder - charges that have since been reduced for four of them. The sixth was booked as a juvenile on sealed charges."

The nooses hung high were of course done in the most absolute of poor taste. We are, after all, a civilized people who should not disparage nor threaten others simply because of their race, ethnicity, or heritage. A stern lecture to the boys, a summoning of their parents to assure that such ignoble goings on will cease and desist, and perhaps most of all, an apology. Without a sincere mea culpa, such a wrongdoing stands the chance of happening again, thus raising the stakes to intolerable levels.

Then there's the other side. Beating a person to a bloody pulp is worse, under the law as well as the eyes of the universe, and such criminality cannot be dismissed. Shame of it all that matters akin to this cannot be handled without the intrusion of Mr. Race-Riot himself, the ever morally- bankrupt Al Sharpton, and as much as anything else, his arrival bespeaks a degree of guilt because Al is the forever champion of the rightfully indicted.

The nooses were despicable. The beating was criminal. And those responsible deserve hard jail time.

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