Civil Rights Leaders Urge Action in Racially Charged La. Beating Case

The school principal recommended that the three white students be expelled, but the school's superintendent opted to give them three-day suspensions, calling the incident "an adolescent prank." LaSalle Parish School Superintendent Roy Breithaupt did not return a phone message seeking comment.

The incident set off weeks of racial tension within the school and the town. Jena residents and families of the charged boys allege that, during a school assembly, Walters told black students that he could ruin their lives with a stroke of his pen.

In November, someone burned down part of the school. Several fights broke out. Police arrested a white man for punching a black teenager. The man pleaded guilty to simple assault. One of the Jena Six defendants was attacked by a white student in November.

The scuffles escalated to a Dec. 4 fight in which Barker was knocked unconscious and sent to the emergency room. Barker was released later that day and attended a ring ceremony that night.

The six black teens, players on Jena's football team, were charged with attempted murder for allegedly beating Barker. Five were charged as adults; the sixth was charged as a juvenile.

Of the six, only Bell has stood trial. He was convicted by an all-white jury of a reduced charge of second-degree aggravated battery. His defense attorney did not call any witnesses, according to local news reports.

His trial attorney could not be reached for comment Monday, but told the Monroe, La., News-Star after the trial that he "put on the best defense I could."

New Attorneys Want New Trial

After the attention drawn to their cases, the six teens have retained new lawyers, including the Southern Poverty Law Center and James Boren, considered one of the top criminal defense lawyers in the state. Harvard professor Charles Ogletree is serving as an adviser, according to other lawyers in the case.

Bell is now represented by a group of attorneys who have asked a federal appeals court to grant him a new trial, saying he should have been tried as a juvenile, rather than as an adult. They also plan to argue that Bell was denied a fair trial because of the all-white jury and because they say his trial lawyer was ineffective, said Carol Powell Lexing, one of Bell's new attorneys.

"We're having to undo a mess here," she said.

Last week, Walters reduced the charges against defendants Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw, whose trials are set for January. On Monday another of the defendants, Robert Bailey Jr., pleaded not guilty to reduced charges of aggravated second degree battery and conspiracy. His trial date was set for Nov. 26.

Only one of the six teen defendants, Bryant Ray Purvis, is still facing an attempted murder charge.

"He's been treated unfairly," said Tina Jones, Purvis' mother. Jones said she expects the charges against Purvis to be reduced at his arraignment.

"The D.A. needs to admit to what he's done and drop the charges on these kids," she said.

The sixth defendant has not been publicly named because he is a minor and has been charged in juvenile court.

Civil rights groups say they expect thousands to come to Jena on Sept. 20, the day of Bell's sentencing.

"It's sort of taken on a life of its own," said Alan Bean, director of Friends of Justice, a Texas-based civil rights group that has followed the case.

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