Responding to a groundswell of public outrage over the racially charged prosecutions of six black teens accused of attempted murder in Jena, La., the Southern Poverty Law Center has brought one of the state's top defense attorneys into the looming court battle.
Accused of beating a white student, the black teens – known as the Jena 6 – each were charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy.
The white student, 18-year-old Justin Barker, reportedly suffered a concussion and a swollen eye. He was treated at a hospital but was released the same day and attended a school event that night.
The Barker incident occurred amid a period of racial tension that began when white students hung nooses from a campus tree after black students had dared to sit under it.
The principal recommended expelling the white students who hung the nooses, but his decision was overruled in favor of three-day suspensions by the school superintendent, an act that outraged the black community.
"These prosecutions are a symbol of a justice system gone wrong," said SPLC President Richard Cohen. "There's leniency for white kids and harshness for black kids. For some time now, we've been working closely with advocates in Louisiana, and many of our members have contacted us to express their shock and outrage over the charges."
The SPLC has retained James Boren of Baton Rouge as a cooperating SPLC attorney to assist with the defense. Boren is a former president of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.
The SPLC is working with other advocates at the grassroots and national levels that are deeply involved in the fight and share a commitment to racial justice. These groups include Friends of Justice, ColorofChange.org, the ACLU and the NAACP.
One of the black students, Mychal Bell, who was 16 at the time of the incident, was tried as an adult in June and convicted by an all-white jury of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. No witnesses for the defense were called by his court-appointed attorney. He faces a possible 22-year prison sentence when he is sentenced on September 20.
"In so many places throughout the country, the scales of justice are weighted against defendants, particularly those who are poor and of color," Cohen said. "By bringing in a great lawyer like Jim Boren, we hope to balance the scales."
Trial dates have not been set for Bryant Purvis, Carwin Jones, Robert Bailey Jr. and Theodore Shaw, all 18, and an unidentified juvenile.
Jena is a rural town of 3,000 in central Louisiana. Eighty-five percent of the population is white.