After spending nearly a year in jail, Jena 6 defendant Mychal Bell finally cracked and copped a plea to a lesser charge of second-degree battery and an 18-month sentence, with credit for time served.
The case sparked one of the largest civil rights protest in recent memory, bringing national and international attention to the small Louisiana town of 3,000. Originally, the six black youth faced up to 80 years for their involvement in a school fight following months of racial tension that began when white students hanged nooses on a schoolyard tree after black students requested to sit under it.
"We were prepared to go forward with the trial, but you have to do what's best for the client," said Carol Powell Lexing, Bell’s attorney.
Since winning a conviction against Bell by an all-white jury in June 2007, LaSalle Parish prosecutor Reed Walters has suffered a series of setbacks in the case. First, Bell’s conviction was overturned by the appeals court. Second, Governor Blanco pressured Walters not to appeal the decision to the state supreme court, but rather try the case in juvenile court where it had been remanded. Adding to the prosecutor’s woes was the bombardment of media coverage, throngs of thousands of protesters, and a tidal wave of angry reactions on both sides of the case.
The plea came as a shock to many supporters who fought to win the freedom and exoneration of the youths. More than one supporter described their reaction as “livid”- upset at the fact that the “unjust disparity” in prosecution will now go on the books as just another conviction against a young black school-age boy- continuing a prevalent national tread. But to locals who favored prosecution, the plea bargain comes as a relief.
Plea bargains "would be the best solution, as long as they don't get away with no punishment at all,” said David Barker, the father of the alleged 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." (source)
Eddie Griffin commentary:
Mychal Bell has been the only one of the six defendants who has been incarcerated since December 2006, except for a few hours of freedom after making bail in September. Therefore, it is not unusual for a young man to jump at the first prospect of freedom, even if it means testifying against his co-defendant.
From the very outset, Bell was the weakest link in the chain, insofar as he had prior juvenile convictions and faced a stiffer punishment than the rest. And, viewing all the other circumstances surrounding the case and fundraising in his defense, it is not clear if he were ever on the same page with the other defendants.
What the plea bargain does is this: It establishes the "schoolyard fight" as a criminal assault and removes the defense of provocation for the other defendants.
Personally, I would have preferred to see Bell stay strong and hold out for "real" justice. But then, I was not the one in jail. I was not the one tortured by the cruelty of confinement. This is probably what the lawyer Carol Lexing meant by saying "you have to do what's best for the client." Not that it was the "best" decision as it was simply the defendant’s wish. Bell wants out of jail- and who can blame him? He’s only 17 years old.
Incarceration is a form of coercion. Like torture, it will make a young man say or do anything to win their freedom. It makes no difference that he compromises the defense of others and disarms the fight of his supporters.
At any rate, this may signal the beginning of the end of the Jena movement. But all was not lost. The movement managed to shed light on a small rural southern town where justice is meted out disproportionately along the color line. And, there is no doubt that without bringing outside attention to the case, these six black youth would have been "slammed" and given lengthy prison sentences.
The sad part of this commentary is the fact that Mychal Bell has to "eat" guilt for a crime that was not a crime in my book. There is an underestimated fear factor about hanging nooses- a real fear for blacks, but underestimated by whites.
As I asked a white friend, "How would you feel if the Mafia hanged a noose outside your door?"