Democracy Now!, Sept. 18, 2007
Listen to segment. Download Show mp3.
Thousands of people are expected to gather in Jena, Louisiana on Thursday to protest the pending charges against six African American high school students. Last week, a Louisiana appeals court threw out the conviction of 17-year-old Mychal Bell. Bell was supposed to have been sentenced for attempted second-degree battery this Thursday. The court ruled that he should not have been tried as an adult. He has been jailed since January, unable to meet his $90,000 bond. We speak with Lewis Scott. [includes rush transcript - partial]
Mychal Bell and five other students were arrested for beating a white student during a schoolyard fight last year. The fight occurred after white students hung three nooses on a tree in the schoolyard.
Bell has been jailed since January unable to meet his $90,000 bond. As of this morning he remains in prison waiting for his new bond to be posted. The Associated Press is reporting that District Attorney Reed Walters plans to appeal Bell's overturned conviction at the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Lewis Scott, Mychal Bell's attorney on the phone from Monroe, Louisiana.
One year after the nooses were hung from the tree, the case of the Jena 6 is drawing thousands to the small town of Jena this Thursday. Mychal Bell is the only one of the Jena Six who remains in prison. But it’s been ten months since the boys were arrested for the schoolyard fight and seventeen-year-old Bryant Purvis hasn’t even been arraigned. The court has just set his arraignment date for the first week of November. He is the only remaining member of the Jena Six to be charged as an adult with attempted second-degree murder.
I spoke to Bryant Purvis’s mother Tina Jones earlier this month. We met on the front porch of her house in Goodpine, an all Black community just outside of Jena. Bryant Purvis was expelled from Jena High School and is now studying in Dallas, Texas and living with his uncle Jason Hatcher. Hatcher grew up in Jena but plays professional football for the Dallas Cowboys. I began by asking Tina Jones to explain what her son has been charged with.
Tina Jones, mother of Bryant Purvis.
This transcript is available free of charge. However, donations help us provide closed captioning for the deaf and hard of hearing on our TV broadcast. Thank you for your generous contribution.
Donate at Democracy Now!
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Jena, Louisiana, where thousands of people are expected to gather Thursday to protest the charges against six African American high school students. Last week, the Louisiana Third Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction of seventeen-year-old Mychal Bell. The court ruled he should not have been tried as an adult. Bell was supposed to have been sentenced for attempted second-degree battery this Thursday.
Mychal Bell and five other students were arrested for beating a white student during a schoolyard fight last December. The fight occurred after white students hung three nooses on a tree in the schoolyard. Bell has been jailed since January, unable to meet his $90,000 bond. As of this morning, he remains in prison, waiting for his new bond to be posted.
The Associated Press is reporting that District Attorney Reed Walters plans to appeal Bell's overturned conviction at the Louisiana Supreme Court.
Lewis Scott is the lead attorney for Mychal Bell. He joins us on the phone right now from Monroe, Louisiana. Welcome to Democracy Now!
LEWIS SCOTT: Good morning. How are you doing?
AMY GOODMAN: It's good to have you with us. Can you tell us the status? What happened with Mychal Bell's conviction?
LEWIS SCOTT: It was overturned by the Third Circuit on the basis of the fact that he was only sixteen at the time of the charge. So, therefore, he should not have been tried in Louisiana as an adult. As a matter of fact, the charges that he was convicted of were not charges that an individual can be charged as an adult for if they're under seventeen years old.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you go back and explain this case to us? We've been covering it on Democracy Now! We've just returned from Jena, Louisiana. We’re going to be playing an interview with one of the moms, in the minute, of the Jena Six. But explain what happened and why Mychal Bell was tried first and separately.
LEWIS SCOTT: Well, I don't know the answer to that. I don't know why the district attorney chose to try Mychal first. By the time I entered the case, the trial was already over. So I entered the case about June or early July of this year, and at the time he had already been convicted. I’ve not been able to determine why he was tried first.
AMY GOODMAN: So you have this situation where last September a black student asked the principal if black students could sit under the tree in the Jena schoolyard. The principal says yes. The black students go to sit under the tree. The next day, the three nooses are hung. Some students are suspended for a couple of days. Tensions mount. It goes for a few months. Then one of the Jena Six, Robert Bailey, goes to a party. He's beaten up by whites. In the next few days, he goes to the local convenience store, the Gotta-Go, and one of those white men has a weapon. Robert grabs it from him, runs home.
Then, the next day is the schoolyard fight, and six African American students are charged. They're charged with second-degree attempted murder, facing each a hundred years in jail. Mychal Bell is tried first. He refuses the plea bargain. And so, they drop the attempted murder charge, but charge him with aggravated battery and said the dangerous weapon was his tennis shoes. And he is convicted by an all-white jury, from an all-white jury pool, and facing twenty-two years in jail.
You then came into the picture after he was convicted. And now the judge, before the court threw out the conviction, said that they were going to drop the conspiracy charge, is that right? He was charged with conspiracy and aggravated battery?
LEWIS SCOTT: Yes, what happened, the district judge threw out the conspiracy and the Third Circuit threw out the aggravated second-degree battery. So you had one charge thrown out at a district level, one charge thrown out at the appellate level.
AMY GOODMAN: Why is Mychal Bell still in jail? The other students, one after another, eventually got out of jail as their families tried to make the bail. Theo Shaw was the last of them to be released just recently. But why is Mychal still in jail?
LEWIS SCOTT: Well, after Mychal was convicted, his bail was revoked. And then, after that, the cases were thrown out. At the present time, our position is that he should not be in jail. However, he does have one juvenile charge of conspiracy still pending against him as a result of him being charged with that charge after the Third Circuit threw out the adult conspiracy charge. So, therefore, he's being held in jail now. And I’m not exactly sure what the reasoning is, but that's a part of what we're challenging at the present time.
AMY GOODMAN: Why was he charged as an adult?
LEWIS SCOTT: Well, I can only speculate at that. But what happened was, he was first charged with attempted murder, which is a charge that you can be charged as an adult for. And then, the attempted murder was downgraded to aggravated second-degree battery. Aggravated second-degree battery is not a charge that you can be charged as an adult for. So it's possible that the purpose was a procedural maneuver to charge the greater charge to change the jurisdiction and then try to determine -- I mean, try to keep the jurisdiction in the district court rather than in the juvenile court. But I would only have to speculate regarding the motivation in charging that and then reducing it.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, Lewis Scott, how it was that all of these young people were charged with attempted second-degree murder originally and still some facing a hundred years in jail? And the response in the Jena community?
LEWIS SCOTT: I wasn't quite able to understand what you said on the last question.
AMY GOODMAN: How the boys were charged with second-degree attempted murder, facing a hundred years each in prison originally.
LEWIS SCOTT: Well, in Louisiana, the district attorney has a lot of discretion in determining what charge he's going to charge. But, again, to answer that question, I would have to deal with the motivations of someone else in order to answer the question. So I really can't answer that question regarding what the district attorney's motivation was in charging such a tremendous crime in this particular circumstance.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, the DA, the District Attorney Reed Walters, after the nooses were hung from the tree and then the students, the black students, protested and all went to stand under the tree, came in with police, according to teachers and students, to the school. They held an assembly, and he warned the students. He said, “I could wipe out your lives with the stroke of a pen.” And then you have the schoolyard fight, and he charges them with attempted second-degree murder.
Mychal Bell is charged. He is convicted by an all-white jury, from an all-white jury pool, and he faces first twenty years, and then, when they drop the conspiracy charge, something like fifteen years. His original lawyer did not bring up one witness in Mychal's defense. Will you be charging incompetent counsel in that case? He had a public defender.
LEWIS SCOTT: Well, it's not up to us to charge. But that was one of the things we were investigating. However, we won't actually be going any further with that, because that entire charge was thrown out. So that was something that we were looking into prior to the time that the Third Circuit made its ruling, but after the Third Circuit made its ruling, then that pretty much gave us the opportunity for a new trial without dealing with all of those issues. So that was something we were investigating into, but at the present time it's not something that we are dealing with under the present circumstance.
AMY GOODMAN: If Mychal Bell is charged as a juvenile, what does he face?
LEWIS SCOTT: A maximum of up to twenty-one.
AMY GOODMAN: Years?
LEWIS SCOTT: Up to his twenty-first birthday, I’m sorry.
AMY GOODMAN: Up to the age of twenty-one. And he has been in jail now for, well, almost ten months. He was a football star. They expected a lot of Mychal, going on to college on a football scholarship. Have you visited Mychal? What are his spirits like in jail?
LEWIS SCOTT: Well, they range from being cautiously optimistic to being optimistically cautious. That is, he's happy over certain things that happen, but then there are other things that cause him to feel like things are not going very well, mainly because he hasn't been able to have his freedom. So I think that's what bothers him most. So he may be happy about good decisions and things of that nature, but he doesn't really feel the full impact of that unless he's released.
AMY GOODMAN: Lewis Scott, what is the impact of the public exposure of this case, as it grows around the country, and then the protests? This one on Thursday, there are many people expected to show up in Jena, Louisiana.
LEWIS SCOTT: Again, I wasn't able to hear.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the impact of the public exposure and the public protest, this large protest expected for the day it was expected that Mychal Bell would be sentenced, now unclear what will happen with the overturning of the decision and the district attorney saying he will appeal?
LEWIS SCOTT: Well, I intentionally try not to evaluate the impact of things of that nature. What I try to do is to concentrate on the legal effort, to make sure that everything is done legally. But then, I don't really get involved in determining how what is done in the public will affect the legal process.
AMY GOODMAN: Well we will certainly follow what happens. We're just back from Jena. I want to thank you very much. We hope to talk to you again, Lewis Scott, the new attorney for Mychal Bell, who remains in jail. Thanks for joining us.
LEWIS SCOTT: OK, thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. When we come back, we'll talk to the mother of one of the Jena Six, and then we'll have a debate on the role of Blackwater in Iraq. The Iraqi government says they're throwing the security company out. Stay with us.
To purchase an audio or video copy of this entire program, click here for our new online ordering or call 1 (888) 999-3877.