Five black youths accused of beating a white high school student in Jena, La., amid racial tension sparked by nooses hung on the high school campus, have pleaded no contest to misdemeanor simple battery charges as part of an agreement to resolve a case that sparked a massive civil rights protest on their behalf.
The youths — initially charged with attempted murder for the high school fight — entered their pleas today in the 28th Judicial District Court in Jena. Carwin Jones, Jesse Ray Beard, 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 will face no jail time under the plea agreement but will be on unsupervised probation for seven days. They will each pay a $500 fine and all but Shaw were assessed court costs. A confidential agreement has been reached to pay restitution to the victim, Justin Barker, through the settlement of a civil suit filed on his behalf.
The SPLC represented Beard. In addition, the SPLC hired Jim Boren, one of the finest criminal defense lawyers in Louisiana, to represent Bailey and helped coordinate the overall defense strategy.
The case generated national attention and raised questions of racial prejudice in the justice system.
"We have contended from the beginning that these young men were improperly charged," said David Utter, the SPLC attorney representing Beard. "We're grateful that this case has been resolved, however. This agreement brings resolution to our client, to Justin Barker and the town of Jena."
The youths presented a statement in court that did not acknowledge guilt or involvement in the beating of Barker but did acknowledge that District Attorney Reed Walters could present evidence against them, and that a conviction was possible should evidence contrary to the prosecutor's account not be believed. They, therefore, chose to plead no contest.
"We recognize that the events of the past two and a half years have also caused Justin and his parents tremendous pain and suffering, much of which has gone unrecognized," according to the prepared statement. "We hope our actions today help to resolve this matter for Justin, Mr. and Mrs. Barker, and all others affected, including the Town of Jena."
The plea agreement came after a long bout of litigation by the attorneys to ensure the youths received fair and just treatment. During the case, the attorneys successfully removed Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. from the case after he referred to the teens as "a violent bunch" and "trouble makers." Mauffray has since retired.
The case stems from an alleged attack on Barker by six black students at Jena High School on Dec. 4, 2006. The incident came after a period of racial tension at the school marked by hangman's nooses being placed in a tree on school grounds.
Shortly after the attack, sheriff's deputies arrested the six black students and charged them with aggravated second-degree battery. Even though Barker was well enough to attend a school function hours later, Walters increased the charges to attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit attempted second-degree murder. One of the young men — Mychal Bell — was transferred to adult court. Bell ultimately pleaded guilty to a second-degree battery charge as a juvenile.
Outrage over the harsh original charges against the youths, who became known as the Jena Six, resulted in a September 2007 protest where more than 20,000 people from around the country gathered in the streets of Jena, a small central Louisiana town with a population of about 3,000.
In addition to galvanizing demonstrators, grassroots civil rights organizations such as Color Of Change raised money for the youths' defense, which led to an adequate defense of the charges.
"This case was always more than just Jena — the disparity in the treatment of African-American youth in the South and our nation's criminal and juvenile justice systems, and the importance of a level playing field in our judicial system" Utter said.