Civil rights leaders and juvenile justice experts on Friday sharply questioned the legality of a judge’s surprise decision to send back to jail a black teenager whose prosecution in a racially charged case helped inspire a massive demonstration in the small Louisiana town of Jena last month. Attorneys for Mychal Bell, 17, said they would quickly appeal the decision made late Thursday by LaSalle Parish District Judge J.P. Mauffray to revoke Bell’s probation and sentence him to 18 months in juvenile detention on two counts of simple battery and two counts of criminal destruction of property.
Bell’s juvenile convictions on those charges preceded and were unrelated to a Dec. 4 assault on a white student at Jena High School for which Bell and five other black students, known as the Jena 6, are still awaiting trial in a case that national civil rights leaders say exemplifies unequal treatment of blacks in the mostly white town. Mauffray’s ruling Thursday night came just two weeks after he was forced to release Bell on $45,000 bond after the teenager had been jailed for more than nine months on the Dec. 4 charges. A Louisiana appellate court overturned Bell’s aggravated battery conviction in that case on the grounds that Mauffray had improperly allowed the youth to be tried as an adult. The appellate court ordered the case back to juvenile court.
“This is judicial revenge,” said Al Sharpton, one of the civil rights leaders who have taken up the Jena 6 case. “The judge was already defeated once by the appellate court, and now he’s taking his frustrations out on Mychal Bell.”
It was unclear why Mauffray decided to send Bell to jail on the prior charges. The judge has ordered all the proceedings in Bell’s case to be closed and directed all the lawyers in the case not speak about it publicly. Other experts on Louisiana’s juvenile laws said that Mauffray’s decision to jail Bell on the earlier charges appeared to run counter to the state’s juvenile statutes. “I don’t know the motivation for this judge and the district attorney, but what they did goes against the grain of our own juvenile code, which holds that home and the community is the best place to treat juveniles,” said David Utter, an attorney and founder of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana. Utter is representing one of the Jena 6 defendants.