Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Justice in Jena-- NYT op-ed piece

in today's new york times; just wondering what folks think of the DA's logic and legal reasoning.

Op-Ed Contributor

Published: September 26, 2007
Jena, La.
(illustration by Justin Gabbard)

THE case of the so-called Jena Six has fired the imaginations of thousands, notably young African-Americans who, according to many of their comments, believe they will be in the vanguard of a new civil rights movement. Whether America needs a new civil rights movement I leave to social activists, politicians and the people who must give life to such a cause.

I am a small-town lawyer and prosecutor. For 16 years, it has been my job as the district attorney to review each criminal case brought to me by the police department or the sheriff, match the facts to any applicable laws and seek justice for those who have been harmed. The work is often rewarding, but not always.

I do not question the sincerity or motivation of the 10,000 or more protesters who descended on Jena last week, after riding hundreds of miles on buses. But long before reaching our town of 3,000 people, they had decided that a miscarriage of justice was taking place here. Their anger at me was summed up by a woman who said, “If you can figure out how to make a schoolyard fight into an attempted murder charge, I’m sure you can figure out how to make stringing nooses into a hate crime.”

That could be a compelling statement to someone trying to motivate listeners on a radio show, but as I am a lawyer obligated to enforce the laws of my state, it does not work for me.

I cannot overemphasize how abhorrent and stupid I find the placing of the nooses on the schoolyard tree in late August 2006. If those who committed that act considered it a prank, their sense of humor is seriously distorted. It was mean-spirited and deserves the condemnation of all decent people.

But it broke no law. I searched the Louisiana criminal code for a crime that I could prosecute. There is none.

Similarly, the United States attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, who is African-American, found no federal law against what was done.

A district attorney cannot take people to trial for acts not covered in the statutes. Imagine the trampling of individual rights that would occur if prosecutors were allowed to pursue every person whose behavior they disapproved of.

The “hate crime” the protesters wish me to prosecute does not exist as a stand-alone offense in Louisiana law. It’s not that our Legislature has turned a blind eye to crimes motivated by race or other personal characteristics, but it has addressed the problem in a way that does not cover what happened in Jena. The hate crime statute is used to enhance the sentences of defendants found guilty of specific crimes, like murder or rape, who chose their victims based on race, religion, sexual orientation or other factors.

Last week, a reporter asked me whether, if I had it to do over, I would do anything differently. I didn’t think of it at the time, but the answer is yes. I would have done a better job of explaining that the offenses of Dec. 4, 2006, did not stem from a “schoolyard fight” as it has been commonly described in the news media and by critics.

Conjure the image of schoolboys fighting: they exchange words, clench fists, throw punches, wrestle in the dirt until classmates or teachers pull them apart. Of course that would not be aggravated second-degree battery, which is what the attackers are now charged with. (Five of the defendants were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder.) But that’s not what happened at Jena High School.

The victim in this crime, who has been all but forgotten amid the focus on the defendants, was a young man named Justin Barker, who was not involved in the nooses incident three months earlier. According to all the credible evidence I am aware of, after lunch, he walked to his next class. As he passed through the gymnasium door to the outside, he was blindsided and knocked unconscious by a vicious blow to the head thrown by Mychal Bell. While lying on the ground unaware of what was happening to him, he was brutally kicked by at least six people.

Imagine you were walking down a city street, and someone leapt from behind a tree and hit you so hard that you fell to the sidewalk unconscious. Would you later describe that as a fight?

Only the intervention of an uninvolved student protected Mr. Barker from severe injury or death. There was serious bodily harm inflicted with a dangerous weapon — the definition of aggravated second-degree battery. Mr. Bell’s conviction on that charge as an adult has been overturned, but I considered adult status appropriate because of his role as the instigator of the attack, the seriousness of the charge and his prior criminal record.

I can understand the emotions generated by the juxtaposition of the noose incident with the attack on Mr. Barker and the outcomes for the perpetrators of each. In the final analysis, though, I am bound to enforce the laws of Louisiana as they exist today, not as they might in someone’s vision of a perfect world.

That is what I have done. And that is what I must continue to do.

Reed Walters is the district attorney of LaSalle Parish.


LadyLiberal said...

This guy is so full of shit! He never explains why he charged the African-American kids with attempted murder in the first place and he never explains that Justin Barker, "the victim in all this," was well enough to go to a party the night of the beating. He also never explains the constant taunting and threats the black kids in Jena had been/ have been subjected to after they had the audacity to want to sit under a tree on their school's campus. Lastly, this D.A., who seems so hell-bent on justice, never even mentions that some of the Jena 6 were threatened at rifle point by a redneck at a gas station for doing NOTHING but being black! This guy is absolutely full of shit.

Anonymous said...

I like how the prosecutor just forgets the facts...and adds them in when he pleases. First of all there is NO (get that none) evidence tying Mychal Bell to kicking the person who was released from the hospital on the same day. He sat in jail for ten months (as he still sits) with no evidence against him. The last conviction was overturned. A school fight and he cannot even get bail. Are you kidding me?

And no law broken for hanging nooses? How about disturbing the peace? Incitement? anything along those lines? Of course these facts are not all inclusive. Six black students had a gun pulled on them. They managed to pull the gun from the white kid and then were subsequently charged for the event. Did you forget that Reed?

What happens to societies when we forget the past? A system where black students have to ask to sit under a tree and then when they do three nooses are hanging there the next day. That is enough to incite an entire community. Black nooses are like the swatstika and it conjures up torture and death in the oral history of black America.

Yet, this is seemingly ignored and only a fight in which students are charged with attempted murder can justice be served.

It is a travesty and there is no way to cover it up. We are ignoring the realities of small town Louisiana by putting the facts in a bubble.

That is why this has sparked a "new civil rights movement." Because the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Anonymous said...

it is saddening that DAs can actuallay beleive that the Law exists in a vacuum, and that they are actually able to pick and choose laws in certain circumstancea and in others, find no way possible. The fact that he infers that racism is a reality created by those wishing to incite social change is incredible, too.

In any story, the writer picks and chooses what he will include, and leave out. Reed did the same thing. is he lying, suffering from amnesia, or both? And why did he decide to change the charges? Obviously, that did not make it into the Op-Ed piece. Suprise, surprise.

magda flores said...

The noose thing really got me. Even if there are "no laws related to this", aren't there limits to what children are allowed to do on school property? Didn't we just have a Supreme Court ruling on this? Nevermind, the fact that hanging nooses is clearly a hate crime. Maybe bong hits for jesus is more offensive to these people then nooses. I can't even pretend to understand what my fellow Americans think anymore.

My take on the piece - This guy is a total fucking tool who doesn't want his "good name" ruined, so he gets the Times to publish his Op/Ed. Then everyone will say, "Well the almighty 'liberal' NY Times ran the DA's defense piece, so the whole thing must be ok."

(Sorry to ramble but I'm just very irritated)

Anonymous said...

good points Magda (I like the rant) and you are so right on the school property issue. That has been ignored completely.

Ric said...

LadyLib -you're so full of crap your eyes are brown. The kid didn't go to a "party"(DUHHH!) He went to a CLASS RING CEREMONY. He left after receiving his ring because he didn;t feel well. Were you there? God forbid these THUGS take something memorable away from the kid.

Where I come from hitting someone from behind and knocking them unconscious and then having 5 of your thug life friends put the boots to them is an absolute act of cowardice!

The tree incident was a stupid, insensitive joke - BUT - why were there white and BLACK students putting their heads into the nooses and joking around about. Again - you were not there.

The redneck at the gas station was at the party that the black kids tried to crash(by the way - there were black kids at that "all white party" - were you there?)The redneck pulled into the gas station and saw the kids who started trouble and was worried for his safety. Why did he hava a gun - hell - what redneck doesn't have a damn rifle rack with a gun on it in Louisiana or Texas??

You full of shit and your post only furthers this "I'm being jailed because I'm black" horseshit. I see plenty...PLENTY of blacks in Detroit slaughtering EACH other and getting away with it.

A school yard fight usually ends when teachers break it up or one of the participants realizes he has hurt his opponent. This thug couldn;t get the job done, man to man, face to face - he had to hit the kid from behind and then have 5 of his "tough" buddies stomp the kid(who by the way HAD NOTHING...NOTHING TO DO WITH THE NOOSES, THE PARTY STORE OR THE PARTY indidents!). It takes some real tough thugs to kick an unconscious kid...I am sure the NAACP, Al Sharpton, Rev Jackson and all Blacks of the same mentality are sooo proud of that.

I prefer to listen to a real black leader like JESSIE LEE PETERSON who tries to educate Blacks that the above listed miscreants only further racial disparity and hatred for whites.

I would charge Mychal Bell with Attempted Murder -- what else would someone hitting you from behind and having 5 friends stomp you be --- certainly not a fair, honorable contest in terms of fighting.

LadyLiberal - you sure live up to the last half of your name

KID RADICAL is similarly challenged...the black kids asked fellow students if they could sit "under the white tree" and laughs were exchanged. You're also an idot to think what happened was a schoolyard fight. I've been in a few and none of them started off with me hitting someone from behind and then asking my 5 friends to kick and stomp someone.

LOL - if I asked any of my black brothers to help me beat up a kid 6 on 1 - they would think I am a little bitch.

la francaise said...

read this... for more on the jena 6 march --