Sept. 11, 2007 — -- 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.
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."
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.