By Howard Witt, chicagotribune.com, Sept. 21, 2007
HOUSTON - The judge overseeing the racially-charged case of the Jena 6 declined Friday to release the only one of the six black teenagers still being held in jail, despite the fact that the youth's conviction for aggravated second-degree battery was vacated a week ago by an appeals court, family members and court sources confirmed.
Ruling just a day after tens of thousands of demonstrators marched through the streets of the small central Louisiana town of Jena to protest the prosecution of the six black high school students for beating a white classmate, LaSalle Parish District Judge J.P. Mauffray declined a defense motion for a writ of habeus corpus that sought to have Mychal Bell, 17, released. A second judge also turned down a defense motion seeking to have Mauffray recused from the case.
Bell has been jailed since the beating incident last December, unable to post $90,000 bond. That bond was rendered moot when Bell's battery conviction was overturned by Louisiana's Third Circuit Court of Appeals on Sept. 14, which ruled that Bell, who was 16 at the time of the incident, should have been tried as a juvenile. The local district attorney prosecuting the case, Reed Walters, has vowed to appeal that ruling, and to press ahead with his cases against the other five youths, who are free on bond.
But Bell remains in jail, and under the jurisdiction of juvenile court, because he is now being prosecuted as a juvenile on a count of conspiracy in connection with the beating. Mauffray's ruling Friday means he declined to set any conditions for Bell's release.
Last month, Mauffray declined a defense motion seeking a reduction in Bell's bond, citing the existence of several previous juvenile convictions for battery and damage to property in Bell's record.
Defense attorneys and Bell's family members all declined to speak about the case on the record, citing strict confidentiality rules governing juvenile proceedings in Louisiana. But Bell's defense team, which replaced a court-appointed public defender who offered no defense on the teenager's behalf during his criminal trial, have vowed in the past to appeal every adverse ruling in the case.
The Jena case has drawn national protests because of the perception of many African Americans that blacks are treated more harshly than whites in the town's criminal justice system.
The tensions in Jena stemmed from an incident a year ago at the local high school, when three white students hung nooses from a tree in a perceived threat directed at black students. After the school superintendent dismissed the nooses as a prank, angering black students and their parents, a series of fights between white and black youths ensued, both on and off the campus.
Walters declined to lodge serious criminal charges against white youths who attacked blacks in two incidents. But when the six black teenagers jumped the white student at the school, beating him and knocking him unconscious, Walters initially charged them with attempted murder, later reducing the charge to aggravated second-degree battery. The white youth was treated and released at a local hospital and attended a school ceremony several hours after the beating incident.