10/13/2009

'Jena Six' Teen Gets Second Chance, a New Start With SPLC Board Member

When SPLC board member Alan Howard represented one of the teens known as the Jena Six in a civil lawsuit, the lawyer ended up providing more than legal help to one of the young men embroiled in the case that raised questions about race and justice in America.

He gave him a second chance at a successful life.

Howard represented Jesse Ray "Jody" Beard in a civil suit stemming from the Jena Six criminal case. But he also became his legal guardian in a remarkable effort to give the teen a fresh start away from his small hometown of Jena, La.

"It was one thing to save him from this immediate predicament and it's another to give him the opportunities outside of Jena," Howard said. "He's just a tremendous, tremendous kid. And he's on his way."

Former Jena Six defendant Jesse Ray Beard takes a break from football practice at his Connecticut school to pose with Alan Howard's wife, Patti, and their 11-year-old son, Tommy.
Former Jena Six defendant Jesse Ray Beard takes a break from football practice at his Connecticut school to pose with Alan Howard's wife,Patti, and their 11-year-old son, Tommy.

Howard has enrolled Beard in a prestigious boarding school in Connecticut, provided him with an internship at a prominent law firm and taken him into his home in Bedford, N.Y.

Beard, 18, was one of six black teens accused of beating up a white classmate at Jena High School in 2006. The incident occurred during a period of racial tension after nooses were hung in a tree on the school campus.

The case drew national attention because of the severity of the charges — attempted murder — initially lodged against the teens by a white prosecutor. Thousands of demonstrators marched in Jena in September 2007 to protest the treatment of the teens.

Youth overcomes challenges
Howard knew his client would face challenges after the Jena Six case was resolved. The other teens accused in the case had opportunities to leave the small town of about 3,000 people along with the notoriety of being one of the Jena Six.

They had a chance for a new beginning. Beard did not.

Even when Beard had an opportunity to get his life back on track, the justice system in Jena wasn't supportive. A chance for the teen to attend school in Philadelphia was quashed by a judge due to an unrelated misdemeanor charge to which Beard previously had pleaded guilty. Howard had the difficult task of telling the teen he wouldn't be going to school in Philadelphia.

"I promised to get him out of Jena," he said.

Ultimately, the judge was removed from the case, and Beard was allowed to leave Jena.

Howard was determined to make good on his promise. With the support of Beard's mother, he became the teen's legal guardian. He enrolled Beard in Canterbury School, a Connecticut prep academy. The tuition is being split between Howard and Beard's mother.

Beard has worked as an intern at Howard's New York law firm, Dewey & LeBoeuf. And he's become part of the Howard family.

"He refers to my other kids as his brothers and sister," Howard said. "And we're like an extra set of parents to him."

David Utter, an SPLC attorney who represented Beard in the criminal case, can attest to the parental role Howard has taken in the teen's life.

"Alan stepped in and provided Jody with the same opportunities he provides to his own children, opportunities that should be available to all young people," he said.

Community offers warm reception

Howard said Beard has received a warm reception since arriving in the Northeast. He's well liked at the law firm where he has worked. He even got into the routine of commuting into New York City.

"He and I would take the train to work every morning and home every night," Howard said.

At Canterbury, the coursework has been rigorous and challenging, Howard said, but Beard is sticking to his goal of getting into college. He has joined the football team, and he's playing so well at running back and linebacker that he's being scouted by Division I colleges. He also plays on Canterbury's varsity basketball and baseball teams.

Beard said the move from Jena provided him with a sense of relief.

"I felt like people were watching me all the time," he said. "I was just trying to stay out of trouble, so nobody could say anything."

Legal case is over

This past June, Beard was able to finally put the Jena Six case behind him. He and four other members of the Jena Six pleaded no contest to misdemeanor simple battery charges. Beard, Carwin Jones, Robert Bailey Jr., Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw were facing aggravated second-degree battery charges after the initial attempted murder charges were reduced.

The youths faced no jail time under the plea agreement but did receive unsupervised probation for seven days. They each paid court costs and all but Shaw were assessed a $500 fine. A confidential agreement was reached to pay restitution to the victim, Justin Barker, through the settlement of a civil suit filed on his behalf.

The SPLC represented Beard and helped coordinate the overall defense strategy for the youths.

Earlier, the sixth teen — Mychal Bell — pleaded guilty to second-degree battery as a juvenile. The school board settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of Barker. No details were released, but the September settlement closed the last outstanding Jena Six case.

All of the members of the Jena Six have enrolled or plan to enroll in college. Several are interested in college athletics and are either on a team or pursuing a spot on a team.

Meanwhile, the role Howard has taken in Beard's life hasn't gone unnoticed. CNN and The American Lawyer magazine have produced stories about the remarkable relationship.

But Howard said the real story is about opportunity and education. Teens should have opportunities to change their lives for the better within their hometowns, he said. They shouldn't have to pin their hopes on finding that chance elsewhere.

"The idea is to bring those opportunities and level of education to the local communities," Howard said.