The criminal case out of Louisiana commonly known as the “Jena 6” has now become a major news story highlighting the disparities in our criminal justice system. The heart of the case involves 6 black teenagers who were charged with attempted murder after they allegedly assaulted a white teenager last December, while white students arrested in similar incidents were given much more lenient treatment.
The broader time line behind this case started earlier last fall when a black student at Jena High School, a predominantly white school in central Louisiana, asked the principal during an assembly if he and his friends could sit underneath a particular tree where white students usually sat. The principal said that it was fine, but the following morning, several nooses were found hanging from the tree. The white students behind that act were disciplined and sent off to an alternative school for a month, but over the next several months, racial tensions at the school boiled over, and there were a number of racially motivated fights and other incidents, including an arson at the school.
On December 4, 2006, a white student named Justin Barker was assaulted by a group of black students. Barker was taken to the hospital and released the same day. The police then arrested six black students and District Attorney J. Reed Walters charged five of them with attempted second-degree murder. The youngest of those charged as an adult was Mychal Bell, a 16-year-old who an adult witness says was not directly involved with the beating, but who already had a number of previous juvenile offenses on his record.
Bell’s case went to trial first, and while the charges against him were lowered to aggravated second-degree battery, an all-white jury convicted him, somehow agreeing with the prosecutors that Bell’s tennis shoes should have been considered a “deadly weapon.” Bell’s public defender, a black man by the name of Blane Williams, did little more than show up at the courthouse. He didn’t challenge the composition of the jury pool and he called no witnesses on his client’s behalf. For those who follow trials like this, especially in the southern United States, this isn’t terribly uncommon behavior for a public defender.
On September 14, a Louisiana Appeals Court overturned Bell’s conviction on the basis that he shouldn’t have been tried as an adult. Two other Jena defendents have since had their charges lowered from attempted murder to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy, but since they were 17 will still be charged as adults. Last week, on the day that Bell was originally supposed to be sentenced, tens of thousands of people descended on Jena to protest what was happening (see the Wikipedia link for referenced articles on the background).
As someone who has made these kinds of racial disparities in law enforcement a focus of my blogging, I’m happy to see this topic being discussed more in the media, but I also have to admit that I was puzzled as to why this particular incident is the one that has made such a widespread impact. So many other incidents have occurred in recent years that have demonstrated how corrupt and racist our justice system can be. Many of them have been in the news, but none of them have drawn the kinds of crowds that showed up in Jena last week. Just to name a few:
- In Tulia, Texas in 2000, a single police officer by the name of Tom Coleman, arrested over 10% of the town’s African American population on what turned out to be completely fabricated drug charges. Many of the defendants ended up getting long prison sentences before the mounting evidence of the officer’s past transgressions was finally allowed to be presented and the convictions were thrown out.
- In Hearne, Texas, also in 2000, a drug task force arrested 15% of the town’s young black male population on the word of a confidential informant who later recanted his testimony. To give you an idea of how bad the justice system can be in rural Texas, seven of the completely innocent people actually plead guilty. Thankfully, this and the Tulia incident led to reforms in drug task forces.
- In Prentice, Mississippi in 2001, a 21-year-old black man with no criminal record named Cory Maye was asleep in his duplex with his daughter when he heard people breaking into his home. The intruders were actually drug task force cops who mistakenly raided his unit in the duplex. As he was jarred awake, Maye fired on one of them, killing an officer by the name of Ron Jones. He was tried, convicted, and sent to death row, despite the fact that the evidence overwhelmingly backed up Maye’s assertion that he didn’t know Jones was a cop. His death sentence has since been overturned.
- In Georgia in 2006, a 17-year-old named Genarlow Wilson was given a 10-year prison sentence for engaging in oral sex with a 15-year-old. The prosecution relied on a loophole in Georgia law that could be used against thousands of Georgia teenagers, but prosecutors have still fought tooth and nail to keep Wilson behind bars rather than lobbying to close the loophole.
- In Texas, a man named Tyrone Brown had served 17 years of a life sentence given to him for testing positive for marijuana while on probation for a $2 robbery. The judge who sentenced him gave a much lighter sentence to a white man who actually killed someone while on probation. Brown was recently given a conditional pardon by Texas Governor Rick Perry.
- In Atlanta in 2006, a 92-year-old (some reports have said 88-year-old) woman named Kathryn Johnston, was shot and killed in her own home in a predominantly black neighborhood by narcotics officers who raided her home based upon the word of an unreliable source who said he bought cocaine there. The officers later tried to get another informant to lie for them to cover up the fact that they didn’t follow procedures.
Some of these cases have gotten some attention. The Tulia case is being made into a movie next year with Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry. The Maye case became well known in the blogosphere after it was publicized by blogger Radley Balko. Orin Kerr of the Volokh Conspiracy also provided pro bono counsel for Maye. Balko originally discovered the case as he was doing research for his Overkill white paper, which documents numerous other cases like what happened to Maye and Kathryn Johnston in Atlanta. Public pressure has certainly played roles in obtaining justice for both Genarlow Wilson and Tyrone Brown. But so far, nothing has generated the kind of overwhelming response that Jena has.
While I’m certainly happy to see stories like these starting to come out of the dark, I was initially at a loss to explain why this particular case has generated such a tipping-point reaction that the other cases did not. For one, the case is much more nuanced than some of the other cases we’ve seen. The actual crime that occurred is much more indefensible for those who actually committed it and is certain to generate an ugly backlash from the usual suspects. But even if Barker called his attackers the ugliest racial epithets, the response was obviously unjustified. The way Bell was tried and convicted was a disgrace, but this is far from the only time a likely innocent young black man has been convicted and sent to jail with a public defender sleeping at his side (and after convincing him to take whatever kind of deal he could get from prosecutors).
Obviously, I don’t mean to downplay it. What happened in Jena is worthy of our outrage and I hope it’s the spark that compels us to start dealing with the enormous problems we have with our prison system – and our eagerness to send way more of our citizens to jail than any other country. But I was truly clueless as to why what happened there provoked such a huge reaction compared to other incidents. I’ve realized that I just don’t quite grasp the powerful effect that evoking the horrific history of lynching has on African-Americans. The fact that all of this started with nooses hanging from a tree far outweighs the very different ways in which injustices against the black community are carried out today. And it brings many people back to a time when many thought that we would no longer have nooses hanging from trees (and pick-up trucks) in the 21st century.