By Marisol Bello, USA TODAY The teen at the center of the “Jena Six” case pleaded guilty Monday to hitting a white classmate in an agreement that will allow him to go free by June. The plea agreement for Mychal Bell, 17, is a significant step in closing the case of the six black youths who were first charged with attempted murder for beating classmate Justin Barker. Bell’s initial conviction as an adult brought at least 20,000 protesters to Jena, La., where the incident occurred.
“This settlement gives Mychal Bell the opportunity to move forward with his life and his dreams,” said Alan Bean, director of Friends of Justice, a civil rights organization. Plea agreements for the five other defendants may follow, said David Utter, an attorney for an unidentified juvenile charged in the case. Utter said he has discussed a possible plea with prosecutor Reed Walters.
In the agreement, Walters dropped conspiracy charges against Bell and reduced an aggravated battery charge to second-degree battery. Bell was sentenced to serve 18 months, which includes the year he already spent in jail. He had been scheduled to go to trial Thursday. If convicted, he could have been sent to a juvenile facility until he was 21. The deal allows Bell to be released to a group home and return to public school as early as Monday. He agreed to testify against the other five if their cases go to trial.
Barker and his family were in court when the deal was announced. They showed no reaction and left without speaking to the news media. They could not be reached later. Walters said he and the Barkers are pleased with the outcome and glad that they will receive restitution. Bell was ordered to pay $935 toward court costs and Justin Barker’s medical bills. “Everybody here is delighted that there is closure coming to this,” said Billy Fowler, a school board member.
Bell had been held in an adult jail since last December. He was released in September after his conviction was overturned by an appeals court. He was sent to a juvenile facility in October for violating his probation on unrelated previous convictions for simple battery and criminal destruction of property. “This was in Mychal’s best interest,” said one of his attorneys, Carol Powell Lexing. “He can put all of this behind him.” Bell and the other defendants became symbols to African-Americans who say the justice system treats blacks more harshly than whites.
“This is a victory,” said Tony Brown, a local radio host. “Reed Walters was set that he would not let any of these young men go. … But this thing sparked a civil rights movement. It shows how we can do something about injustices if we speak up.”