Thursday, September 13, 2007

Civil rights groups will march in Jena, La., next week to protest what is being called “excessive” prosecution of six black high school students and call for an investigation of the prosecutor in the case.

“Our intent is to have these charges reduced from felonies to misdemeanors, so these students can go back to school and not to jail,” said the Rev. Ernest Johnson, president of the Louisiana National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

On Dec. 4, Mychal Bell, 17; Robert Bailey Jr., 17; Theo Shaw, 17; Carwin Jones, 18, Bryant Purvis, 17; and a minor whose name has not been released — now all called the “Jena Six” — were arrested and charged with aggravated battery and conspiracy in the beating of Justin Barker, a white student, during a fight at Jena High School.

Mr. Barker was taken to a local hospital where he was treated for a concussion, and cuts and bruises. He was released the same day.

Bell was convicted in June of second-degree aggravated battery. Bell, who faces as much as 15 years in prison, will be sentenced Sept. 20, when the NAACP and others will hold a protest march in front of the LaSalle Parish courthouse.

“The prosecutor from the beginning of this case has seemingly employed less than ethical and just legal tactics in overzealous attempts to have Mychal Bell unjustly convicted,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton in a letter sent Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco this week.

Mr. Sharpton has called on Mrs. Blanco to investigate Mr. Walters for failing to prosecute white students who in November assaulted one of the other defendants — Robert Bailey Jr. The failure “represents, in our estimation, a dereliction of duty,” Mr. Sharpton said.

Racial tensions in the small northeast Louisiana town have been rising since an incident last September involving a black student.

Kenneth Purvis, then a junior at Jena High School, asked permission to sit under a large oak tree in the school courtyard, something that for years only white students had done. School officials said he had the right to sit there or anywhere else other students sat. A day after he and other black students sat there, three hangman’s nooses appeared on the tree.

“We want to emphasize that the hanging of a noose from a tree is not a prank, it is a hate crime,” Mr. Johnson said, adding that the group will present a petition with 40,000 signatures asking for leniency for the six defendants to be sent to Mrs. Blanco.

Jena, which has a population of about 3,000 residents, is 85 percent white.

Many in the community considered the noose-hanging a harmless prank. The school board punished the three young men responsible with a three-day-in-school suspension.

Several more incidents followed, including a fight at a house party and school fights.

Also, there was an incident at a convenience store where a white man pulled a shotgun on three black students, who subsequently beat and disarmed him. One of the three black youths was charged with assault and theft of the gun while no charges were filed against the adult.

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