Why the Jena 6?

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.

Comments

  1. 1

    spews:

    Because of the nature of this topic, I’ll be strictly enforcing the comment thread rules here. This is a serious topic for serious discussion.

  2. 2

    My Left Foot spews:

    Lee,

    Great piece. You have but scratched the surface of a very important issue.

    Money and ethnicity play far to great a role in our justice system. There is a great book by author Scott Turow “Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyers Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty.” It is not a long book, even the trolls might be able to get through it. Long story short he went into his work on a committee set up by then Illinois Governor George Ryan to look into the death penalty in that state.

    He was non committal when the investigation began. In the end the committee’s report persuaded the Governor Ryan to commute the sentence of all existing death row inmates to life in prison. I can’t go into detail but the inequities were rampant in the areas race, money and whether the crime was committed against people of color or whites.

    Your piece points out some of the disturbing problems and imbalances. We must find a solution.

  3. 3

    spews:

    Lee

    Great and thoughtful analysis.

    Jena should make all Americans think about the distance we still need to go to reach Dr. King’s dream.

    The first thing that should be said is that the taint of racism in the student body at Jena runs terribly deep.

    . Those of us who live in Seattle need to recognize we have the same problem. As Lee and others know, I have tried (so far unsuccessfully) to find a way to leaven the DL so it looks more like the America I love, one where someone with a Black skin would and should feel utterly natural coming by to have a beer with Goldy or giving Will a hard time about gentrification .. or even arguing with me!

    I can only tell you that every AA friend I have discussed
    this with asks the same question … “If I come wil theer be anyone else who looks like me?” Obviously the Montlake Tavern is anything BUT the white folks’ tree but we all … and I certainly include the AA communty should ask whu is still iunnatural, even n this blessed city, for the AA and non AA communities to freely mix?

    Opportunists like Sharpton, and I am sad to say Jackson,can mislead all of our efforts in this situation. No matter how badly the courts behaved toward the AA kids, we should all be shocked that in the 2007 we still have this kind of pernicious black vs white/white vs black racism.

    Why has this not become an issue for the Presidential crew?

    “Mr, Guiliani, you have read about the events in Jena. If elected to the position of utmost prestige in the US, how wold you use that prestige to resolve the foul smalle of racism?:

    “mr. Huckabbee …”Mt. Romney …”Mr. Obama ..”Ms Clinton ….

  4. 4

    spews:

    kudos to you Lee, for delving into this. your reference to the power of the noose is right on. dave neiwert is our pacific northwest resident expert on “hate crimes,” but this case seems to touch on that particular third rail of american life. i also really agree that DL needs to somehow begin to reflect the america of today, although i realize the blogosphere and the montlake neighborhood really don’t. inviting some “prominent” guests who represent diverse communities might be a start.

  5. 7

    Wow spews:

    I think the outrage comes from the core. The black boys felt they had to get permission from the principal to sit under the TREE.

    That kinda shit shouldn’t be happening in 2007.

  6. 8

    spews:

    @5
    I do not and I’m not sure if they’re currently available. If you find them, please feel free to post a link.

    @6
    There were no criminal prosecutions over the nooses, but the students were sent to an alternative school for a month and also given suspensions. The Wikipedia page has more detail about that.

  7. 9

    Bax spews:

    I would offer you a suggestion: until you actually read the trial transcripts, be very careful commenting on what happened at the trial. You can’t really appropriately comment on anybody’s conduct at the trial until you read the first hand account.

  8. 10

    spews:

    @9
    Bax,
    It’s very well confirmed that Bell’s initial representation was inadequate. There is no active dispute over the fact that his defender failed to call a witness (a Coach at the high school) who was prepared to testify that Bell was not the initial attacker, and that he did not challenge the makeup of the jury. I didn’t assert anything more specific than that (and those two facts alone are enough to conclude that Bell’s representation was inadequate).

  9. 11

    drool spews:

    ……and why the hell was it that there was a tree that black kids couldn’t sit under in the first place?

  10. 12

    spews:

    Sure there was a crime committed. In a normal part of this country, the punishment would have been 20 hours of community service, and the media would never have heard of the story. Instead you get some David Duke wannabe prosecutor, and it is all over the media.

  11. 13

    spews:

    You are sure right to be asking, why this travesty of justice and not some other… I think the nooses hit one of our American visual archetypes of horror, just as the image of Matthew Shepard hanging on a fence did the same.

    Another thought: clearly activists from outside the immediate families and communities took up the ball and ran with it. It almost always takes that.

    Yesterday I noticed a little story in San Francisco — a cop was let off the hook for shooting a legless black man in the back because the cop feared the suspect was going for a gun. That’s the norm.

    Activists dogged another case of police shooting here — the murder of Sheila Detoy — and at least forced investigations and great trouble for the police. In that one, the victim was clearly innocent; the cops clearly trigger happy. Thousands of hours of activism at least got an investigation.

    My point: it takes the combination of 1) an archetype, preferably visual, 2) a victim who can be portrayed as innocent, and 3) tremendous activism, to get these kinds of daily injustice against Black communities on the the public radar.

  12. 14

    Politically Incorrect spews:

    Any chance of an apology to the Duke lacrosse players who were “convicted” by Duke faculty members? Is there an apology coming from Mike Nifong, a rank political opportunist, in the worst sense? How about Nancy Grace over at CNN: is she going to apologize? Haven’t heard too much about those people coming forward to apologize.

    There are two sides to every coin.

  13. 15

    spews:

    @12 WDRusel

    “In a normal part of this country, ”

    That is the point! While there has been huge progress, this sort of severe racism exists everyplace.

    I would like to suggest that there are two very different issues here. One is the misconduct of the courts. It seems to me that our court system is badly in need of reform at many levels. Money should not be the factor it is in the courts. Race should never be an issue. The entire concept of a sports contest, including the advantage given to the richer team, needs to be questioned.

    The other issue is racism. I do not think the answer is more hate crimes laws or affirmative action to send more non AA to jail or an advertising campaign to make crack the drug of choice in the Euro community.

    The answer we badly need is LEADERSHIP. Everyone, on the right or left should be disgusted at Jena. A visit by a the respective leaders of both communities? This should be agreat opportunity for Tancredo and Huckabee to make it very clear that they find the whites disgusting. Is Obama black? Prove it. Invite HRC and whoever else will come to Jena and decry what the black kids did.

    A meeting of the candidates with the communities under the effin tree would be historic.

    Bit … no. Many would rather spend more money on grandstanding.

  14. 16

    spews:

    @14
    Is there an apology coming from Mike Nifong, a rank political opportunist, in the worst sense?

    Um, yes:

    http://sports.espn.go.com/ncaa.....id=2835259

    How about Nancy Grace over at CNN: is she going to apologize?

    Don’t bet on it. She’s horrendous. I can’t believe she’s even on TV.

    There are two sides to every coin.

    Exactly, as there are countless numbers of young black men who have been sent to prison on trumped up rape charges over the years without anyone on TV talking about it. What happened to the Duke Lacrosse players was a disgrace, but at least they never got convicted. Many cases like this end up with an innocent person spending years, if not decades, behind bars.

  15. 17

    spews:

    @14
    By the way, your comment was off-topic, although I understand how you think it’s not. I’ve responded in a way that hopefully gets you on topic. If you continue on a tack that wealthy whites are treated more unfairly in our criminal justice system, your comments will be removed. Not because I’m trying to censor you, but because I want this to be a serious discussion, and that’s simply not a serious argument.

  16. 18

    spews:

    Just to add to the mix:

    blatherWatch: Bill O’Reilly loves those negroes!: “Patronizingly, he declared that black people are ‘starting’ to think for themselves. ‘They’re getting away from the Sharptons and the [Rev. Jesse] Jacksons and the people trying to lead them into a race-based culture. They’re just trying to figure it out. ‘Look, I can make it. If I work hard and get educated, I can make it.'”

    OReilly probably does not even see his racism. Juan Williams sat with Billo, casigating CNN rayther than helping his Euo buddy see the truth.

    Imagine instead, the two of thse going to Jena and serving as an example of brotherly love?

  17. 19

    jsa on commercial drive spews:

    Let me toss out a question:

    How much of what we’re seeing is a result of race, and how much is a result of class?

    The reason I ask this is because the two causes have very different remedies. If prosecutors, courts or juries are truly racially biased (something I’m not sure I buy), then you need vigilant (and intrusive) oversight to insure that the justice which is handed out is truly color-blind.

    The effect of money in a courtroom is pretty well understood. I know of at least one high-profile African-American defendant who generated a dramatically different outcome in the courts based on the expertise of his legal counsel than an indigent defendant would have experienced under similar circumstances.

    The remedy here is to figure out how poor defendants can be provided with better counsel, and to have real remedies if they are poorly advised.

    It is an open question. I don’t know. Are poor blacks prosecuted more aggressively than poor whites when the facts of the case are similar? It’s a well known quirk of the legal system that possession of crack cocaine results in longer sentences than possession of a similar amount of power cocaine. One is used by blacks, one by whites. Coincidence? Media hysteria? Crypto-racism?

    If anyone has some information to point me in the right direction, I’d appreciate it.

  18. 20

    SeattleJew spews:

    @17 great question and would like to see an answer.

    I suggest that both issues operate.

    Class and money have huge effects on how folks see and use the court system. Claiming that OJ and anyone else get equal treatment is absurd. I also see a conflict between advocacy ofr the poor and the huge salaries for-profit advocates like Mr. Edwards make.

    The other issue, race, remains as well. The bizarre performance of BillO at a restaurant in Harlem simply makes the point. BillO obviously meant well. However, his very words say that Mr,. OReilly has a stereotyped image that would makes him an unfit Juror in a trail that hinged on skin colcr. On the other side, the sterotyping Shearpton and his ilks do towards “Whites” is no better.

    The good news is that the forces are now equally or more equally matched. The Black haters and White-haters in Jena seem to have en equal chance to screw each other.

  19. 21

    spews:

    @17
    JSA,
    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I want to share my thoughts and hopefully others will as well.

    How much of what we’re seeing is a result of race, and how much is a result of class?

    It’s almost impossible to measure what percentage of overall injustice comes from racism. Too much of what we’re dealing with here is intangible. But there’s definitely a strong racial component to the ways that our criminal justice system has failed us.

    The reason I ask this is because the two causes have very different remedies. If prosecutors, courts or juries are truly racially biased (something I’m not sure I buy), then you need vigilant (and intrusive) oversight to insure that the justice which is handed out is truly color-blind.

    The problem of prosecutors, courts, and juries being racially biased is generally a localized issue. They are the exception rather than the rule. But across the United States, there are enough “exceptions” that it has a noticeable impact on the ethnic makeup of our prison population. The Tulia case is the most extreme example I’ve seen. Having read Nate Blakeslee’s book (which is now being made into a movie, as I mentioned above), it is almost unfathomable that a case like that happened in the year 2000 and not 1950.

    As I was reading it (I did not know that it was being made into a movie yet), I could not help but think that a movie that accurately portrayed what happened there would stun most Americans. Nearly everyone involved, from the prosecutor to the judge to the local press, openly had the attitude that the guilt or innocense of the accused was irrelevant. The important thing was making sure more black people were put in jail. Even the head of the local Democratic Party was so racist he refused to support the innocents.

    The effect of money in a courtroom is pretty well understood. I know of at least one high-profile African-American defendant who generated a dramatically different outcome in the courts based on the expertise of his legal counsel than an indigent defendant would have experienced under similar circumstances.

    Money is certainly a factor in our justice system. There’s no question about that. OJ certainly didn’t have to worry about having a lazy public defender who doesn’t life a finger for him. But that’s only part of the picture. The reason why race plays a role is only partly rooted in the fact that many African-Americans in this country are poor.

    A much bigger reason comes from who is targeted by both prosecutors and law enforcement. Drug laws, which are by far the biggest cause of the racial disparity in our justice system nationwide, allows for both prosecutors and law enforcement to make arrests and conduct anti-drug operations in black areas, while similar crimes (drug use, drug dealing) are left alone in white areas. Here in Seattle, this is actually the leading reason for our racial disparities in who goes through our local justice system. Studies from 2001 showed that far more black people are arrested for drug crimes in Seattle despite the fact that whites actually use more drugs. This disparity led to massive imbalances in who populates Washington State prisons, and can’t be explained by money or lack of access to quality counsel.

    The remedy here is to figure out how poor defendants can be provided with better counsel, and to have real remedies if they are poorly advised.

    I think that’s certainly needed, but I’m concerned that this won’t really get at the real problem (why are we arresting 800,000 people a year for marijuana in the first place?), but instead raise the costs of a system that is already too expensive and broken at a much more fundamental level.

    It is an open question. I don’t know. Are poor blacks prosecuted more aggressively than poor whites when the facts of the case are similar?

    In Jena, I believe a strong case can be made for that.

    It’s a well known quirk of the legal system that possession of crack cocaine results in longer sentences than possession of a similar amount of power cocaine. One is used by blacks, one by whites. Coincidence? Media hysteria? Crypto-racism?

    It was a combination of things. Some people were led to believe that crack was more dangerous than cocaine and therefore tougher punishments were required. Others thought that since crack was found in more depressed neighborhoods, it was necessary to have stricter penalties in order to “save” those neighborhoods. And arguably others just see no problem with putting mostly black people in jail while letting mostly whites off the hook. The third group is now the only ones still supporting it, and sadly that’s a significant chunk of Congress.

    If anyone has some information to point me in the right direction, I’d appreciate it.

    Hopefully my rambling helped. :)

  20. 23

    chadt spews:

    The DA in the case was just on CNN attributing his survival of the “trauma that has come down on (him)…” to the prayers offered up by the Christians in the community.

    That is so offensive on several levels that I can offer no coherent comment on it.

  21. 24

    SeattleJew spews:

    He also met with a conservative Christian group. If anyone here was an adult, they would send the children to their cubicles to think about hwat they have done.

    Lee,

    While I agree with you on the race issue, I think you underestimate the seriousness of our pay for clout legal system. As classism grows in America, moreover, this will get worse. I think the issue is even worse in the civil law arena.

    How do we get the %^&$^$ pols to take Jena seriously? It seems to em that Jena is core issue and tightly related to the key issues affecting our future.

    I must admit to having no idea about how this can be solved but one story fascinates me. That story is the number of unemployed attorneys. In a true free market this should drive the costs of legal representation down. This does not happen, why?

  22. 25

    spyder spews:

    If i am not mistaken the Mayor of Jena has been making the white supremacist circuit, offering thanks to them on their radio, in their publications and so forth. If the mayor, and the town for that matter, truly wanted to frame the discussion on the “criminal behavior” of the defendants and not as a matter of race, one might suppose that speaking to engage the support of known racists and white supremacists wouldn’t be the best possible course of action. Such efforts on their part sadly point to a nation that is incapable of accepting its ongoing legacy of racism.

  23. 26

    spews:

    @24
    While I agree with you on the race issue, I think you underestimate the seriousness of our pay for clout legal system. As classism grows in America, moreover, this will get worse. I think the issue is even worse in the civil law arena.

    I’m not sure what you base that on. I definitely think the “pay for clout” legal system is a very serious issue in its own right. What I was saying to JSA is that just trying to fix that problem by upping the public expenditures on better public defenders doesn’t address the more fundamental problem – that too many people are flooding our criminal justice system who don’t belong there.

    How do we get the %^&$^$ pols to take Jena seriously? It seems to em that Jena is core issue and tightly related to the key issues affecting our future.

    What can pols do regarding that case that’s more than symbolic? As I’ve said numerous times, the best way that politicians can start addressing the racial inequities in our justice system is to start dismantling the drug war apparatus. I don’t see them doing any of that in response to Jena. Instead, they passed more hate crime legislation, which does nothing except to allow politicians to feel like they’re making progress without having to do something.

    I must admit to having no idea about how this can be solved but one story fascinates me. That story is the number of unemployed attorneys. In a true free market this should drive the costs of legal representation down. This does not happen, why?

    For the same reason that the free market doesn’t work as expected in health care. The laws of supply and demand create the optimal result when you’re talking about things we want, but they don’t when you’re talking about things we need. Legal representation is a need, not a want.

  24. 27

    spews:

    @3 A lot of the Democratic Presidential Candidates have made statements about the Jena 6. It was rather disappointing and disgustingly typical that the only candidate questioned about it in last night’s New Hampshire debate was Obama. His answer was slightly disappointing but also correct. He has authored legislation and introduced it at the beginning of the year, before it became a big news story. He has spoken out about it in various stump speeches. It is not his fault that the media ignored those sections.

    Edwards has also spoke out about it, but again the media didn’t mention it. I don’t know about the other candidates, as I haven’t been following any of their stump speeches that closely, but I would be willing to bet they have atleast mentioned it and the media ignored their statements as well.

    Calling for them to go to Jena sounds good but it wouldn’t be productive for them to do so. Already, the town of Jena feels besieged. Piling on by the candidates might make for good photo ops, but would not help the situation. Instead, it would further harden the mentality of the residents. Making them feel resentful and openly aggressive towards the minorities that are causing them to be embarrassed. I’m not saying its right, but it is human psychology. Nobody wants to think of themselves in that light and they will make any excuse for why they aren’t.

    As to why the Republican Candidates aren’t speaking about it… Well, that is sorta obvious, considering their party has been using divisiveness and hate politics to new heights over the last decade or so.

  25. 28

    SeattleJew spews:

    White supremacist backlash builds over Jena case — chicagotribune.com: “McMillin has insisted that his town is being unfairly portrayed as racist—an assertion the mayor repeated in an interview with Richard Barrett, the leader of the Nationalist Movement, a white supremacist group based in Learned, Miss., who asked McMillin to ‘set aside some place for those opposing the colored folks.’ ‘I am not endorsing any demonstrations, but I do appreciate what you are trying to do,’ Barrett quoted McMillin as saying. ‘Your moral support means a lot.’ McMillin declined to return calls seeking comment Monday. Barker’s father, David, said his family did not know the nature of Barrett’s group when they agreed to be interviewed, adding, ‘I am not a white supremacist, and neither is my son.’ But Barrett said he explained his group and its beliefs to the Barker family, who then invited him to stay overnight at their home on the eve of last week’s protest march.”

  26. 29

    SeattleJew spews:

    @26 Lee

    I would like to talk about your argument about the legal market but maybe in another thread? I like the way this thread is going, and think a discussion of the legal market would be off topic. You are doing a great job today.

    As for the relationship to the presidential campaign, I think that lack of attention to this issue is another symptom of how the contest has become a formalized sumo match. Jena is not something that will be solved by legislation. It requires the kind of leadership the ANC showed post apartheid.

    As ofr Micael Caine ..

    I can see you point, but maybe this si the pace for surrogates. Hell Bill and Michelle and Mrs. Edwards amke a veru formidable phalanx in their own right.

    I do disagree with anything that focuses on this as a white issue. It is a Jena issue, as is any affinity the mayor has for the stuff I posted at 28. A public show of disgust for racism coming form either grop would help at least some.

  27. 30

    spews:

    As a bit off topic but locally relevant, my wife and I ran into an incident a few weeks back that really startled us. I wrote about it here, http://www.donkeybytes.org/blog/?p=7 .

    In a nutshell, there were teenagers harassing cars with blacks and other minorities going into the McD’s drive-thru in North Bend. They were shouting “White Power” with their fists in the air. Cars with whites in them were allowed to pass without any statements.

    It had a profound and surprising, to me, effect on me, bringing back a particularly intense memory of mine while growing up in the South. My wife didn’t believe me when I told her what they were saying, until she started listening more closely.

    She wanted to notify the manager of the McD’s but I was sure that he already knew and wasn’t doing anything as they had been out there for atleast 30 minutes while we were watching and acted like they had been there for a while. I was mostly paralyzed. Old fears and symbology cascaded through my mind. Fearing retribution, even though I and my wife are white, since it was just the two of us.

    In the end, I decided to post about it and cross-post and direct others from other sites to the posts. Sadly the most positive response was generally apathy. The most common response was that I was lying and should stop.

  28. 32

    spews:

    It strikes me that the correct answer for all of the court racism issues could be solved by changing the structure of the Public Defender programs. If we were to fund them even to the levels of our Prosecuting Attorneys enjoy, there would be greater equity.

    If the price tag of providing such a system is balked at, there should be attention focused at the true cost of our current system. Few seem to complain about the high costs of our jails and prisons. The only ones that seem to complain about the high costs of prosecution unless it is in reference to death penalty cases, with both sides vying to use it to support their side.

    Maybe, just maybe, laws would be passed that examined the economic costs of prosecution/defense vs. the cost to society if the law wasn’t passed.

  29. 33

    OneMan spews:

    Here’s an example of the problem in our own back yard: “Pro-White” group? wtf?

    How are these groups anything but hate groups and why didn’t the Times identify them as such? I wish people would call things what they are.

    -OM

  30. 34

    My Left Foot spews:

    In the comments above someone asked the question if it race or class that makes the difference.

    I think it is actually that we almost automatically attach class to race. If we see a young black man in a BMW he must be a pimp. See a young white man in the same car and the assumption is that his parents bought it for him.

    The fact that this carries over into our court system is no big surprise. The surprise is that the demonstration in Jena did not happen in any number of cities before this.

    It is a shame it did not happen sooner.

  31. 35

    SeattleJew spews:

    @32 Mike

    It would be nice to know more about the finances of the court system. In other countries a lot of what we do as a conbtest is entrusted to a judge. Is that really a bad idea? Could it level the plying field?

    As for public defender, why should their be private defenders? Why should a wealthy person have a better defense than a poor person? Maybe we should tax wealthy folks who lose in court? Or maybe enveryone should have a public defender and the private attorney should function is some less powerful way? None of this makes sense, but neither does our existing system.

  32. 36

    chadt spews:

    This will quickly find its way into the current political debate and cause much confusion and angst. I rather suspect that it will bite some conservatives, and although it is a separate, vital issue in this country, it will be subsumed by the liberal-conservative war.

  33. 37

    jsa on commercial drive spews:

    My Left Foot:

    The race or class question is mine.

    People will have their own impressions, and some unhealthy memes propagate through people’s heads. I don’t know how much can be done about individual human nature. It can be changed, but it’s a painfully slow process.

    Institutions like courts, prosecutors, police departments, etc. have their rights and responsibilities dictated by law. If the law is providing unequal justice, it has to be changed. That’s not a tough problem. You can troll through the court docket with a spreadsheet and see who is going in the dock, what the charges are, and what the sentencing is. If a town has a population which is 20% black, but 60% of the people appearing in court are black, you go to the prosecutor’s office, go to the judge’s chambers, demand a good explanation for the imbalance, and apply real punishments if the explanations are no good.

    Class is a harder problem to crack. As Anatole France might have said “The law in its majestic equality, allows rich and poor the equal right to hire competent, highly-paid counsel”. You can throw a lot more money into the public defender’s system. That’s probably not a very good solution quite frankly. You can go to law firms and say more pro bono work needs to be done to assist the indigent, and possibly provide an incentive to the firm to provide more services to the financially disadvantaged. That’s a little better, but not much.

    All class-related remedies I can think of would require some form of fairly aggressive financial redistribution. I see financial redistribution as a “least worst” solution. Not a good solution. First, I wouldn’t like my pocket to be picked under such circumstances. Second, and more importantly, I don’t think you will ever realistically achieve anything resembling equality through this path. People who have fat bank accounts to draw from will receive better representation than people relying on charity.

    You will not get justice this way. Only incrementally closer to it.

  34. 38

    Piper Scott spews:

    @35…SJ…

    I’ve been following this thread with interest, and I’m formulating some thoughts.

    But the adversarial legal system we use in the US does a far better job of ensuring our rights are protected and respected than any other in the world.

    It’s not perfect, and no one out there is more critical of some aspects of it than am I, but on the whole and at the end of the day, it’s far and away the best in the world.

    From what I’ve read and heard about Jena, it does sound as though the PD was ineffective. OK…that’s why we have appellate courts.

    Frankly, it’s not a question of funding for PD’s since even a first year law student could have easily mounted a more effective defense. No, what you had was an incompetent attorney.

    That the wealthy can hire more and better attorneys isn’t inherently a flaw in the system; O.J. had the best representation possible first go round.

    The answer isn’t dragging the quality of everyone’s legal representation down to the lowest possible common denominator.

    Just as you would spare no expense to provide the best medical care for your family, so, too, you would spare no expense to provide the best legal representation you could.

    Remember…the burden is still upon the state to prove guilt in a criminal case “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That’s a pretty high standard. In civil cases, it’s preponderance of the evidence, which essentially means 50.1% of the evidence.

    I would hate like Hell to have one person be both prosecutor, defender, and tryer of fact. If you think the jails are full now, just try that system; we’ll all end up behind bars!

    The Piper

  35. 39

    Bax spews:

    It strikes me that the correct answer for all of the court racism issues could be solved by changing the structure of the Public Defender programs. If we were to fund them even to the levels of our Prosecuting Attorneys enjoy, there would be greater equity.

    Prosecuting attorneys have to handle 100% of criminal cases in a given county. Public defenders do not. Prosecuting attorneys have the burden of proving every element of a crime charged. Public defenders do not. Prosecuting attorneys must call witnesses in every single case. Public defenders have no such burden.

    It is entirely appropriate to properly fund public defenders. But suggesting their funding should be equal to prosecutors shows a complete lack of knowledge of how the legal system actually works.

  36. 40

    jsa on commercial drive spews:

    I’d like to riff on something Piper said.

    Just as you would spare no expense to provide the best medical care for your family, so, too, you would spare no expense to provide the best legal representation you could.

    True that. And in most countries, there is a split system. A functional but minimal publicly funded system, where you can expect your ills to be treated competently, and a spare-no-expense private system where miracles are done.

    If I go to a doctor in Canada, I expect my arm will be set competently if it is broken, and I will be diagnosed correctly and given medication if I am ill. I do not expect miracles, and I would not trust myself to this system if I had late stage cancer, but I have no fear of the medical system here.

    Now, to get to the point of this topic, which is law, and not medicine, is that the PD system in the US seems to have glaring holes in its level of competency. I have no plans to be in a criminal court any time soon, but if I were, there is no way on God’s Green Earth I would be represented by a public defender. There have been so many high-profile screwups that I expect I could read the law better myself than put myself and my freedom in the care of a PD.

    Just as we set an expectation of levels of care for physicians, I think it is reasonable that we set an expectation for levels of representation from PDs. If PDs are underfunded to the point that they cannot reasonably provide competent (again, not miraculous, but competent) representation, then that needs to be changed. If a PD breaches the public trust by not providing competent representation, she or he should risk disbarment.

  37. 41

    Bax spews:

    It’s very well confirmed that Bell’s initial representation was inadequate.

    Not based on what you’ve posted, it isn’t.

    There is no active dispute over the fact that his defender failed to call a witness (a Coach at the high school) who was prepared to testify that Bell was not the initial attacker,

    On its own, that means nothing. Somebody doesn’t have to be the initial attacker to be guilty of felony assault. We’d have to read the transcripts to see what the evidence was.

    and that he did not challenge the makeup of the jury.

    And again, on its own, that doesn’t mean anything. Just because a jury was all-white, doesn’t mean any law was broken, and doesn’t mean the defendant didn’t get a fair trial.

    I didn’t assert anything more specific than that (and those two facts alone are enough to conclude that Bell’s representation was inadequate).

    Those two facts, taken on their own, are not enough to conclude anything. You have to read the trial transcripts to see how the defendant’s attorney conducted himself. He might have brutally cross examined every witness. He might have given the greatest closing argument anybody’s ever seen. He might well be an outstanding attorney. Or maybe he’s not. Until you see the transcripts, you won’t know.

    My only point is that you shouldn’t jump to any conclusions until you go to the primary source material. I’m not saying the guy did a good job. I’m not saying he did a bad job. I’m saying you have to see how he actually conducted himself before you make that conclusion.

  38. 42

    spews:

    @41
    Bax,
    At an abstract level, I agree with you. But as someone who has followed the way black youths are prosecuted in the deep south, the chance that Williams was really an outstanding attorney, but just somehow failed to do the two most basic things he could have done to help his client, is a near impossibility.

    Piper, thanks for the great comment. I appreciate it.

  39. 43

    spews:

    @38 Piper

    But the adversarial legal system we use in the US does a far better job of ensuring our rights are protected and respected than any other in the world. ….on the whole and at the end of the day, it’s far and away the best in the world.

    This is a nice claim but do you have any data? Sweden? Germany> Israel?

    Frankly, it’s not a question of funding for PD’s since even a first year law student could have easily mounted a more effective defense. No, what you had was an incompetent attorney.

    There we agree and the good thing is that our system provides safe guards.

    That the wealthy can hire more and better attorneys isn’t inherently a flaw in the system; O.J. had the best representation possible first go round.

    Yes and ???

    Also, we are only discussing crijminal law, there must be an issue in civil law as well?

    The answer isn’t dragging the quality of everyone’s legal representation down to the lowest possible common denominator.

    I sort of agree but do not know what we should do to assure equity. Look at this as a civl law issue. Bill Gates and You go to court. Is that a fair balance?

    Just as you would spare no expense to provide the best medical care for your family, so, too, you would spare no expense to provide the best legal representation you could. i am not convinced the analogy holds, but if it does I would argue that the same issue does apply and all folks shouls be equal before the law and in the face of medical risk.

    I would hate like Hell to have one person be both prosecutor, defender, and tryer of fact. If you think the jails are full now, just try that system; we’ll all end up behind bars!

    I am not sure you are correct. Aren’t there several countries with just such a system? How badly does it work?

    One way of doing something to help might be increasing the bounds of small claims court.

  40. 45

    spews:

    @44
    Let me be clear so that I don’t have to delete more of your comments. This post is about the problems in our justice system when it comes to treating black Americans equally and why Jena 6 has become such a rallying cry. If you can’t say anything about that, your comment is off-topic.

  41. 50

    Puddybud spews:

    For chadt:

    Without reading comments above here is my opinion. There is racial injustice in America. I highlighted it all the time here on ASSWipes. I have delivered entry after entry here.

    Each of the examples stated by Lee are the tip of the iceberg. I was a victim of DWB here in Washington State. Similarly in New Jersey too. But in Washngtion State I had both of my sons in car seats doing at most 37 in a 35 MPH zone.

    I would like the prosecutors to be liable for their actions and sent to jail. Nifong for instance should have been sent to jail for the same term the 3 Duke guys would have gotten.

    When police try and cover their phony actions they should be put in the general prison population.

    Rodney King once asked why can’t we get along. It’s because race is always used in elections so we’ll never get past the issues du jour. Also there is corporate racism too. The glass ceiling is very apparent. A black in corporate america must do 150% to meet the status quo.

  42. 51

    Puddybud spews:

    Now that I gave my own brush with DWB, the nooses hung from the tree are federal hate crimes. Why weren’t they charged? Where was the outrage over that? Why wasn’t this judicial inequity written up on ASSWipes?

    Now the six black kids should not have been beating up the white kid. I don’t condone that. And why was the youngest charged as an adult? Outrageous!

    Now I’ll read the comments.

  43. 53

    spews:

    @52
    When I started researching this post, I actually started with that Snopes page. They’re generally very good at researching and sorting the BS from the facts.

  44. 54

    mirror spews:

    One of the many Parts of the outrage is that a few days before a group of white students had beat up a black student at a party with NO consequences.

    Basically, this was racial tension at a school that was fanned by the white power structure and when it boiled over black students were charged with felony murder instead of the misdemeanor assault charges they would have gotten in Seattle.

    Furthermore, the prosecutor making the murder charges is on the school board that was overseeing the High School where this all got out of hand.

    This biased overcharging is clearly a very clear warning to the African-Americans in the community of what lies in store for them if they rock the boat. It’s 1950’s level Jim Crow justice – really.

    The racist actions here are calculated, structural, and open for all to see.