The racially charged case of the Jena Six, a group of Black teenagers from a small Louisiana town accused of beating a White student, continues to provoke outrage across the country.
This week a court hearing ended with one conviction being dropped against one of the boys. Even with that decision and a national surge of support surrounding the young men in recent months, they still face decades behind bars.
Back in December, the boys, who range in age from 15 to 17 and are all from the town of Jena, were charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree murder for allegedly assaulting a White student at Jena High School last December. In June an all-White jury convicted Mychal Bell, 17, on lesser charges of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery. After a motion hearing on September 4, a judge threw out the conspiracy conviction against Bell on the grounds that juveniles cannot be charged with conspiracy in adult court. The aggravated battery conviction, however, was upheld. Bell stands to spend up to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced September 20. With his bail currently set at $90,000, he has remained incarcerated since being charged. "The support is great, but it's all about the legal matters now," Bell's father, Marcus Jones, told essence.com.
And on Tuesday, District Attorney Reed Walters reduced the charges of two more defendants, Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw, to aggravated second-degree battery. Their trials are slated for January. Three other boys are still awaiting trial dates and could be jailed for up to 100 years each on attempted murder charges.
According to news reports, this is what transpired: In September 2006, a group of Black students at Jena High School challenged the long-standing "tradition" of Whites sitting under a tree on one section of campus. After Black students asked school administrators if they could also sit under the tree, they crossed over into the designated "White" side of the courtyard. The next day three nooses dangled from the tree. The school superintendent wrote that incident off as a harmless prank, and the White students responsible received a three-day suspension. But the turmoil escalated in December when six Black students allegedly attacked a White student who had allegedly spewed racial slurs.
The nature of how seriously the White student was hurt is in dispute, but according to reports, the same student attended a ring ceremony at the school later that night. Police gathered contradicting testimony from other White students. Despite the conflicting stories, the Black teenagers named were immediately arrested on charges of attempted murder. Melissa, Mychal Bell's mother, told essence.com that out of nearly 20 witnesses, only two students said they saw her son, and those two accounts differed. "I always did worry about what was going on here in Jena," she said wearily, describing it as a racially divided town where African-Americans are indisputably second-class citizens. "I really never wanted to raise Mychal here, but I never had the money to move."
Bell's parents believe that the LaSalle Parish District Attorney, Reed Walters, is trying to make an example of the six teenagers to keep the town's African-American community in its place. In Louisiana, aggravated battery requires the use of a weapon, and Bell's parents have said no weapons were drawn during the alleged attack. But Walters has argued that the sneakers Bell wore during the alleged assault qualified as a dangerous weapon. Several of the other young men charged had bonds set as high as $138,000. The District Attorney's office declined to comment because of a gag order on the case.
"Keep your kids educated about America and who runs this country," Jones told essence.com as a message to other Black parents.
"Once the police target your boys and get their hands on them, it's hard to get them away," said Melissa Bell. "Keep praying for Mychal and the rest of those boys, and keep us in your hearts."