The racially charged case of six black teenagers charged with attacking a white student in the small town of Jena, La., has stirred nationwide attention, with civil rights leaders planning to attend protests next week and well-known lawyers taking an interest in the case.
After a jailhouse meeting with Mychal Bell, one of the defendants in the case, The Rev. Jesse Jackson told ABC News Monday that charges against the six boys -- dubbed the "Jena Six" -- should be dropped or reduced to misdemeanors.
"We want the Jena Six freed and sent to school and not to jail," he said, urging white and black residents of the mostly white town to peacefully work out their differences. "They should forgive, reconcile, redeem and move on. Instead you have these mounting tensions."
Bell, who was convicted earlier this year of battery, faces up to 15 years in prison for allegedly beating Justin Barker, then 17, who is white, after weeks of escalating violence between white and black students.
Bell was convicted in June in adult court on second-degree aggravated battery and conspiracy charges related to the Barker incident. Last week, a judge threw out the conspiracy conviction, saying juveniles could not be tried as adults for conspiracy, but left open the option for District Attorney Reed Walters to refile the charges in juvenile court.
On Monday, in a closed hearing in juvenile court, Walters refiled charges against Bell for conspiracy to commit aggravated battery, according to several people with knowledge of the case. Walters did not return calls seeking comment; his office said he could not comment on pending cases. Under state law, lawyers are prohibited from discussing juvenile court proceedings.
The case has attracted the attention of national groups such as the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Congressional Black Caucus, who criticize what they call unequal justice in Jena because white students accused of beating up blacks have not faced severe criminal charges or prison time.
This weekend, both Jackson and The Rev. Al Sharpton visited Jena, with Sharpton calling for an investigation of Walters. Jackson said he would try to meet with Walters and with Barker's parents, and both men said they planned to join the thousands of people expected at protests planned for Sept. 20, the date of Bell's scheduled sentencing. A group in California said it had collected about 150,000 signatures on a petition asking Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to investigate the case.
"The case has captured the imagination of a lot of people," said Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is helping to coordinate legal representation for the six boys and is paying for some of their legal fees. "It's taken on symbolic importance as a microcosm for so many other things that are wrong with the criminal justice system."
The tension began last August when a black student at Jena High School asked if he could sit beneath a tree where white students usually sat. He was told to sit wherever he wanted.
The next day, three white students hung nooses from the tree. Some black residents saw the nooses as a reminder of the days of lynchings and Jim Crowe justice. Many, including Jackson and Cohen, have called hanging the nooses a hate crime.