By MARY FOSTER – NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A black teenager whose prosecution in the beating of a white classmate led to one of the largest civil rights protests in years is close to a deal that would allow him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor and avoid a second trial, his attorney said Sunday.
Mychal Bell, 17, could enter the plea as early as Monday, said attorney Carol Powell Lexing. He has been charged with aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy.
“We were prepared to go forward with the trial, but you have to do what’s best for the client,” Lexing said.
LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters did not return a call Sunday evening requesting comment. Bell, who is black, is scheduled to go to trial Thursday on the felony charges for his suspected role in an attack on Justin Barker, a white student at Jena High School in central Louisiana.
Barker spent several hours in the emergency room after the attack but was discharged and attended a school event the night after the attack, which occurred about a year ago. Bell was originally charged as an adult with attempted murder. That charge was reduced before a jury convicted him in June of aggravated second-degree battery. In September, that verdict was thrown out by an appeals court that said Bell should be tried as a juvenile.
The charges against Bell and five other black students led to a civil-rights demonstration in Jena in September. Felony charges against the other students are pending. Critics said prosecutors have treated blacks more harshly than whites in LaSalle Parish, pointing to an incident three months before the attack on Barker in which three white teens were accused of hanging nooses from a tree at the high school. The three were suspended from school but never criminally charged. Walters has said there was no state crime to charge them with.