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Plea bargain is approved for 'Jena Six' teen

Mychal Bell, 17, pleads guilty to a juvenile charge. Deals for the other defendants may be in the works.

December 04, 2007|Howard Witt | Chicago Tribune

HOUSTON — The district attorney in the racially charged "Jena Six" case in Louisiana agreed to a plea bargain Monday that sharply reduced the charges against the first of the six black teenagers facing trial, while lawyers for other defendants said the prosecutor appeared eager to settle their cases as well.

LaSalle Parish Dist. Atty. Reed Walters, whose initial decision to charge the black teenagers with attempted murder for beating a white youth was condemned as excessive by civil rights leaders, dropped a conspiracy charge against Mychal Bell, 17, and agreed to let him plead guilty to a juvenile charge of second-degree battery, with a sentence of 18 months and credit for time served.

District Judge J.P. Mauffray approved the plea agreement just three days before Bell's trial in juvenile court was to start. Bell's lawyers said Walters offered them the plea agreement Thursday, a week after a coalition of U.S. media companies, led by the Chicago Tribune and including the Los Angeles Times, successfully sued Mauffray to force him to open the trial to the public and the media.

"This case has been a very difficult chapter in the town's life and for the individuals involved," said David Utter, a lawyer for another of the Jena Six defendants, who was charged as a juvenile. "My sense is that the district attorney would like to close this chapter now."

Utter and lawyers for several other Jena Six defendants confirmed that they were engaged in plea negotiations with the district attorney, heralding a potential conclusion to the case that drew more than 20,000 protesters to Jena in September and earned the small Louisiana town a portrayal by civil rights leaders and the national media as a racist backwater.

The decision to reduce the charges against Bell was the latest turnabout for Walters, who had vowed to aggressively prosecute the six black youths for their alleged roles in jumping Justin Barker as he emerged from the gymnasium at Jena High School on Dec. 4, 2006, and kicking him while he lay unconscious.

The incident capped months of racial unrest in the town, set off when three white students hung nooses from a tree traditionally used by whites at the high school after black students sought permission to sit beneath it.

Black students and their parents regarded the noose incident as a hate crime and demanded that the white perpetrators be expelled, but school officials dismissed the incident as a prank and issued lesser punishments. A series of fights ensued between black and white youths, and civil rights leaders asserted that the schools and the courts in Jena treated black students more harshly than whites for comparable offenses.

After the Jena story gained national attention in the spring, Walters backed away from the attempted murder charges and instead charged the six teenagers with aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. He tried Bell on those charges as an adult in June and won a conviction, but an appeals court reversed the verdict in September, ruling that Bell should have been prosecuted as a juvenile.

Since then, Walters has come under growing political pressure to conclude the Jena Six cases.

Local leaders have been dreading a drawn-out series of criminal trials that would keep Jena in the spotlight throughout 2008.

And Louisiana's outgoing governor, Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, directly pressed Walters not to pursue an appeal of the decision that struck down Bell's adult conviction.

Walters did not address the question of political pressure, but he said in a statement Monday that he hoped to have the remaining Jena Six cases resolved early next year.

"My goal and intention has always been to find appropriate justice for Justin Barker, and I believe this plea accomplishes that," Walters said.

Before Walters made his plea offer, Bell's lawyers said they had been preparing pretrial motions seeking to recuse both the prosecutor and Mauffray from the case. The lawyers said evidence contained in those motions would have embarrassed both men.

"A trial would be very bad for the town, very bad for Reed Walters, very bad for anybody in Jena associated with the process, and it could turn out very bad for the defendants as well," said Alan Bean, head of a civil rights group called Friends of Justice and the first activist to call attention to the Jena case.

Parents on both sides of the case agreed.

"If the district attorney makes an offer to us and my son doesn't have to do any jail time, that would be fine," said Tina Jones, who insists her son, defendant Bryant Purvis, was not involved in the school attack. "I'm ready to get this all over with."

Plea bargains "would be the best solution, as long as they don't get away with no punishment at all," said David Barker, father of Justin Barker, the school beating victim. "This case has taken its toll on everybody. Justin has ulcers now. Letting it drag on for years would just be additional stress for him."

Bell's lawyers said they agreed to the plea bargain to spare the former high school football star the danger of being convicted of more serious charges.

In October, Mauffray sentenced Bell to 18 months in a juvenile facility for four prior juvenile convictions for battery and destruction of property.

But under the terms of Monday's plea agreement, that time will be served concurrently with the new 18-month sentence, and Bell will get credit for the nine months he spent in jail while awaiting trial.

His lawyers said he could be released by June.

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