JENA, LA. — A judge ruled Wednesday that the public and the news media should have full access to all legal proceedings involving Mychal Bell, one of the teenage defendants in the racially charged "Jena Six" case in Louisiana, whose prosecution had been shrouded in secrecy on orders of the trial judge.
Ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Chicago Tribune and joined by a coalition of major U.S. media organizations including the Los Angeles Times, Rapides Parish District Judge Thomas Yeager ordered that Bell's upcoming criminal trial, as well as any pretrial hearings, must be open to the press and the public.
Yeager also ordered that the court record and transcripts of any closed proceedings held so far be made available to the news media, and that attorneys for Bell be released from the trial judge's gag order directing them not to speak about the case.
"The right to an open trial is one that's very important," Yeager said in making his ruling, "so that the public has confidence in what we do."
Yeager's ruling was a rebuke to LaSalle Parish District Judge J.P. Mauffray, who had ordered that all the proceedings in Bell's case should be closed because the youth, now 17, is being tried as a juvenile for his alleged part in the beating of a white student at Jena High School in December.
The news media argued, and Yeager agreed, that although Louisiana law generally mandates confidentiality in juvenile matters, it requires that certain juvenile cases involving serious felony charges be open to the public. Bell is charged with aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy, two of the charges that qualify to be heard in open court under state law, Yeager ruled.
It was the second major setback for Mauffray in the Bell case. In June, Mauffray presided when Bell was convicted as an adult on the battery and conspiracy charges. An appellate court later vacated that conviction, ruling that LaSalle Parish Dist. Atty. Reed Walters and Mauffray had improperly tried Bell as an adult rather than a juvenile.
Mauffray sat as a spectator in his own courtroom Wednesday as Yeager, appointed by the state Supreme Court as a visiting judge to hear the news media case, politely upbraided him.
"It's not discretionary, it's mandatory," Yeager said. "Mauffray . . . should open the proceedings and he should open the court records. It's not a confidential case."
Mauffray declined to comment after the ruling. But his attorneys vowed to immediately appeal the decision and asked Yeager to suspend its enforcement until that appeal is heard.
Yeager said he would only suspend his ruling if all parties in Bell's case, currently scheduled for trial Dec. 6, would agree to postpone the trial and any other pretrial proceedings while Mauffray's appeal makes it way through a higher court. Otherwise, Yeager said, the news media and the public would suffer irreparable harm if access to past and future court proceedings is denied while the appeal is pending.
In a court filing last week in answer to the media coalition lawsuit, Mauffray's attorneys had already conceded that Bell's upcoming trial is required to be open under state law. But Mauffray had argued that Louisiana laws gave the news media no right to access pretrial proceedings or court records. Yeager rejected those arguments.
"This was a great victory for the press today and the rights of the people to observe the workings of the court," said Mary Ellen Roy, lead attorney for the news media coalition.
Bell and five other black teens face trial for the Dec. 4 beating of a white student, Justin Barker, who was attacked and briefly knocked unconscious. That incident capped months of violent racial tension in Jena set off after a black student asked school administrators for permission to sit beneath a shade tree in the high school courtyard traditionally used only by whites.
The next day, three white students hung nooses from the tree -- an offense dismissed as a youthful prank by school officials but denounced by many black students and their parents as a hate crime.
Walters had initially charged the defendants with attempted murder, but later reduced the charges. He has vowed to press forward with the prosecutions, citing what he said was the seriousness of the attack on Barker.
Civil rights leaders have criticized the prosecution of the black youths as excessive and indicative of what they assert is a pattern of unequal justice in the mostly white town of about 2,900. In September, more than 20,000 protesters from across the country marched through Jena in the largest civil rights demonstration in recent years.