Treatment of Jena Six Raises Questions of Racial Injustice

September 14, 2007 12:00 am

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Appears to Be Symptom of Broader Problem, ACLU Says


JENA, LA – The American Civil Liberties Union today expressed concern about the possibility of racially-motivated unequal treatment in the Jena Six case, in which six black high school students were charged with attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder for fighting with a white student last year in Jena, Louisiana. Although some of the charges were later reduced to aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery, one student still faces an attempted murder charge and up to 50 years in prison without suspension, probation or parole. Mychal Bell, the only member of the Jena Six to be tried so far, was convicted of aggravated battery in July and could face a 15 year prison sentence.

The troubling story began in August 2006, when three black Jena High School students sat under a so-called “white tree” in the school’s courtyard where only white students traditionally sat. When they arrived at school the next morning, the black students found three nooses hanging from the tree. In the weeks following this incident, racial altercations engulfed the town of Jena. Under questionable circumstances, LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters charged six black teenagers with attempted murder. Only one white student was charged for his involvement in the fights—a minor charge of battery that put him on probation.

“Given the facts as reported, the Jena Six case raises serious questions about a possible double standard for whites and blacks in the criminal justice system—and in our schools. Unfortunately, this kind of problem is not exclusive to Jena, Louisiana,” said Dennis Parker, Director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “Possible differences in treatment between students of different races, the apparent overcharging of students by law enforcement and questions about the possibility of discrimination generally in the school are emblematic of the “school-to-prison pipeline” cases that we are seeing nationwide.”

The ACLU has been on the ground working closely with the families of the Jena Six since March 2007, before their story was reported nationally. As a lead advocacy organization on the issue, the ACLU has helped the families of the six young men charged in the Jena Six cases to form a defense committee and to develop and administer a legal defense fund to ensure qualified criminal defense representation. In addition, the ACLU has thoroughly monitored the cases to protect the civil rights of the Jena Six and their families.

“From racial profiling to unequal punishment in school to potential misconduct by authorities, the Jena Six case causes great concern,” said Marjorie Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “It is time to fully examine the facts surrounding this case to determine if any racially-motivated misdeeds have taken place. Considering the concerns that the Jena Six bring up, we must redouble our commitment to equal protection—not just in Jena, but across Louisiana and the rest of the country.”

Recently, the ACLU of Louisiana filed an “open records request” in Louisiana seeking all arrest and incident reports, broken down by race, for LaSalle Parish, which includes the town of Jena. The request also seeks records pertaining to Jena High School specifically, including documents listing the frequency of law enforcement visits to the school and charges issued to its students. Instead of following the standard procedure of turning over the appropriate materials, District Attorney Walters took the extraordinary step of suing the ACLU of Louisiana in state court so he would not have to comply with the order. The ACLU of Louisiana filed a motion to move the issue to federal court, where it is currently pending.

Coinciding with Mychal Bell’s September 20 sentencing date, the ACLU is working in coordination with the Jena Six family members to organize a demonstration from the courthouse to a baseball field in Jena. The event is expected to draw up to 5,000 people from across the country in support of the Jena Six and to bring attention to their tragic experience.

In light of media reports of questionable conduct by authorities involved in the Jena Six cases, the ACLU is calling on Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti to seek justice for the Jena Six—including a thorough examination of the actions of District Attorney Reed Waters to determine whether or not prosecutorial improprieties have taken place.

More information on the Jena Six can be found at:

More information on the ACLU Racial Justice Project’s work on the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ can be found at:

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