It almost came down to the wire. Mychal Bell, 17, was scheduled to be sentenced next Thursday for his conviction in the beating of a white high school schoolmate.
He was found guilty of aggravated battery last June by an all-white jury and faced up to 15 years in prison.
But a Louisiana appeals court ruled late Friday that Bell, who was 16 when he committed the crime for which he was charged, should not have been tried an adult. The three-judge panel overturned the conviction.
Bell, a football star at Jena High School, was the first of six African-American teens to be tried on charges stemming from the Dec. 4 beating of Justin Barker. He has been jailed without bail since his arrest. The others face similar charges. Two of them are accused of second-degree attempted murder as an adult.
The case of the so-called Jena 6 has stirred outrage and protests by many African-Americans around the country. They say it harkens back to kind of racial injustice to which blacks in the South were routinely subjected in the days of segregation.
Began Under Tree
The saga began last summer when several black students at Jena High School sat under a tree on the school campus that had by tradition been an area where only white students congregated. The next day, three nooses were left hanging from a branch.
Caseptla Bailey, the mother of Robert Bailey, one of the accused six, said, "It sent a message: 'This is not the place for you to sit. This is not your damn tree. Do not sit here.'"
Three white students were suspended for that incident. In the weeks that followed, tensions between blacks and whites rose at the high school and in the small town of Jena, about 230 miles northwest of New Orleans. It has a population of about 3,000, about 80 percent of them white.
Last November, the school was set on fire. A white adult at a gas station pulled a shotgun on three black youths. The white man was not charged, but the black youths were. Then, on Dec. 4, Justin Barker was beaten by a group of black students. The six defendants were arrested and originally all charged with attempted murder. The charges were later reduced for all but two of them.
Stoked by an e-mail campaign and Internet videos, outrage over the severity of the charges and then Bell's conviction mounted all summer.
Plans were made for a major demonstration on Sept. 20, the date Bell was scheduled to be sentenced on the adult conviction for aggravated battery. The protest is still expected to take place despite the appeals court ruling.
On Weekend Good Morning America, the New York-based activist Rev. Al Sharpton called on Louisiana Gov. Katherine Babineaux Blanco to investigate the LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters who brought the charges against the Jena 6 defendants.
"So either you have kids the same age, you make some, the black one, the adults and hit them with attempted murder and you have the white kids with hate crimes and assault crimes because they're juveniles," Sharpton said. "It seems very selected and very clearly biased."
Sharpton said he plans to seek an investigation to review how this case was prosecuted, noting that in a long line of incidents only six black students were prosecuted.
"The defendant was not tried on an offense which could have subjected him to the jurisdiction of the criminal court," the three-paragraph ruling said. The case "remains exclusively in juvenile court."
Although it was a major setback for the prosecution in this racially-charged case, Bell can still be tried in juvenile court. If convicted there, the maximum penalty would be confinement to a juvenile facility until he is 21.