BY MARY MITCHELL
Mychal Bell, the first teen to be convicted in the “Jena 6” case in Jena, La., will have a hearing on Tuesday. At that time, his lawyers will either prevail on motions to set aside the verdict, or Bell will be sentenced on charges of second-degree aggravated battery and conspiracy in connection with a high school fight.
In that event, the 17-year-old faces up to 22 years in prison. Bell is one of a group of defendants who have come to be known as the “Jena 6.” All of the defendants are black high school students accused of beating up a white classmate after a series of racial incidents at a high school in the small Louisiana town.
The trouble started when black students exercised their right to sit under a shade tree traditionally used by white students. In response, white students hung three “nooses” from the tree. That act — a throwback to the days when blacks were lynched for exercising their civil rights — was portrayed by school officials as a “silly prank,” and the white students got in-school suspensions.
But, while the misconduct by white students was handled as a prank, and an attack against a black student at a private party resulted in one of the attackers being charged with a misdemeanor, school officials and the LaSalle Parish District Attorney have brought out a hammer against the black students involved in the school fight.
We need to raise money
Obviously, violence in school is a serious infraction and should be dealt with harshly. But the huge disparity in punishments makes this a textbook example of America’s biased justice system. On Sept. 20, several national organizations will rally in Jena. That’s the date Bell is scheduled to be sentenced. Unfortunately, as noted by George Tucker — the attorney representing another “Jena 6” defendant — there’s been a “top-heavy effort to encourage” the defendants, but an “empty effort” to support them financially. “These people are still indigent,” Tucker said. “We need to raise money in a very bad way.”
It will take more than marches, prayers and speeches to keep these young men out of prison on trumped-up charges. Lawyers are going to have to hire investigators, researchers and other experts to prepare the kind of defense that could ultimately serve as a blueprint to attack other prosecutions that appear to be racially motivated. “With all these racially charged prosecutions, the punishment has been excessive. But here you have the kind of numbers — six kids rather than one — to capture the nation’s attention,” Tucker said.
“This is not a new phenomenon. This is another day at the shop in small town America.” So it is going to take money — lots of it. The “Jena 6” families had to put up their properties and borrow from friends and relatives just to get their sons out of jail. Then they had to retain seasoned lawyers to fight charges that could put these teens behind bars for decades. “This is not a crime and punishment issue,” Tucker pointed out. “This is a civil rights issue, and there are a lot of things involved. One, this happened in school. What was the role the school administration was supposed to have played? That needs to be answered while it still means something to these kids.”
Make sure donation counts
If you Google “Jena 6 Defense Fund” many Web sites pop up, but it is difficult to determine what groups are legitimate, or to determine how much money actually ends up going to these defendants. “A lot of people are running illegal Web sites, and the kids are not getting the benefit of the money,” said Marcus Jones, the father of Mychal Bell, during a telephone interview on Friday.
“We started a Web site the first week in July, and before we knew anything, all of the other organizations posted Web sites and made money from it.” I’m not suggesting that any of the organizations that have supported this effort are involved in fraud. One way to ensure that money goes directly to help with these teens’ defense is to identify the lawyer representing a defendant and send your check directly to him or her.
Or as Jones has requested, send your donation to a fund set up by the parents of the “Jena 6” defendants. That address is: Jena 6 Defense Fund, P.O. Box 2798, Jena, La. 71342.