Racial Discrimination and the Legal System: The Recent Lessons of Louisiana

Racial discrimination is widespread in the legal system of the United States. A recent example from Louisiana will help underscore the statistics that follow.
Jena, Louisiana, with a population of 2,900, is a still mostly segregated section of the rural south in the United States. It is mostly poor and nearly 90 per cent white. The elected District Attorney is white, all the judges are white, all heads of law enforcement are white. African Americans have but one seat on the nine-member school board and one other on the local ten-person governing body. There are two black teachers and one black police officer in Jena.
Recently a young black student, who was 16 years old at the time he was arrested, was convicted of two felonies by an all-white jury after an interracial fight at a local high school. The all-white jury heard only white witnesses called by the white prosecutor to testify in a courtroom overseen by a white judge. The victim, who is also white and had been making racial taunts, was hit by black students and was taken to a local hospital and released to attend a social function. The all-white jury, prosecutor and supporters of the white victim were all seated on one side of the courtroom. The African-American defendant and his supporters were on the other. The jury quickly convicted Mychal Bell, now 17, of aggravated battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated battery; he faces up to 22 years in prison. Five other black youths await similar trials on second-degree attempted murder and conspiracy charges.
The fight was the culmination of a series of racial incidents that started when whites responded to black students sitting under the "white tree" at the Jena High School by hanging three nooses from the tree. It was called the "white tree" because only white kids, who make up 80 per cent of the school, sat under it. Early in the fall of 2006, several African American students decided to exercise their right to sit under the "white tree". The next morning, as they arrived at school, three nooses were hanging from the tree. The message was clear: "Those nooses meant the Ku Klux Klan, they meant 'Niggers, we're going to kill you, we're going to hang you till you die'," said Casteptla Bailey, a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) leader and mother of one of the students.
Black students and families protested this hate crime. The school principal recommended that the three white students who hung the nooses be expelled, but the white superintendent of schools overruled him and gave the boys a brief suspension, saying the nooses were merely "pranks". When the protests continued, the white District Attorney was summoned to Jena High School to address a school assembly. According to testimony in a later motion in court, the District Attorney, flanked by law enforcement, threatened the protesting black students, saying that if they did not stop making a fuss about this "innocent prank, I can be your best friend or your worst enemy. I can take away your lives with a stroke of my pen".
Racial tensions remained high throughout the fall. On the night of Thursday, 30 November 2006, a still-unsolved fire burned down the main academic building of Jena High. The next evening, Friday, 1 December, a black student who showed up at a white party was beaten up by whites. On Saturday, 2 December, a young white man pulled out a shotgun in a confrontation with a group of young black men at the Gotta Go convenience store outside Jena before the men wrestled it away from him. The black men who took the shotgun away were later arrested; no charges were filed against the white man. On Monday, 4 December, at Jena High, a white student-who allegedly had been making racial taunts, including calling African-American students "niggers", while supporting the students who hung the nooses and beat up a black student at an off-campus party-was knocked down, punched and kicked by black students. The white victim was taken to the hospital for treatment and released, and later attended a social function that evening.
The six black Jena students were arrested and charged with second-degree attempted murder. They were also expelled from school. The six charged were: 17-year-old Robert Bailey Junior, whose bail was set at $138,000; 17 year-old Theo Shaw-bail at $130,000; 18-year-old Carwin Jones-bail at $100,000; 17-year-old Bryant Purvis-bail at $70,000; 16-year-old Mychal Bell, a high school sophomore who was charged as an adult and for whom bail was set at $90,000; and a still unidentified minor. Many of these young men, who came to be known as the Jena Six, stayed in jail for months. Few families could afford bond or private attorneys.
Mychal Bell remained in jail from December 2006 until his trial because his family was unable to post bond. When it finally came, the trial was swift. Bell was represented by an appointed public defender. On the morning of the trial, the District Attorney reduced the charges from second-degree attempted murder to second-degree aggravated battery and conspiracy. Aggravated battery in Louisiana law demands the attack to be with a dangerous weapon. What was the dangerous weapon? The prosecutor was allowed to argue that the tennis shoes worn by Bell could be considered a dangerous weapon used by "the gang of black boys" who beat the white victim.
Most shocking of all, when the pool of potential jurors was summoned, 50 people came, every single one of them white. The LaSalle Parish clerk defended the all-white group, saying that the jury pool was selected by computer. "The venire [panel of prospective jurors] is colour-blind. The idea is for the list to truly reflect the racial make-up of the community, but the system does not take race into factor." Officials said they had summoned 150 people, but these were the only people who showed up. The all-white jury, which was finally chosen, included two people friendly with the District Attorney, a relative of one of the witnesses and several others who were friends of the prosecution witnesses.
Mychal Bell's parents, Melissa Bell and Marcus Jones, were not even allowed to attend the trial despite their objections, because they were listed as potential witnesses. The white victim, though a witness, was allowed to stay in the courtroom. Bell's parents, who had been widely quoted in the media as critics of the process, were also told they could no longer speak to the media as long as the trial was in session. Marcus Jones had told the media, "it's all about those nooses", and declared the charges racially motivated. Other supporters, who planned a demonstration in support of Bell, were ordered by the court not to go near the courthouse or anywhere the judge would see them.
The prosecutor called 17 witnesses: 11 white students, 3 white teachers and 2 white nurses. Some said they saw Bell kick the victim, others said they did not see him do anything. The white victim testified that he did not know if Bell hit him or not. The public defender did not challenge the all-white jury, presented no evidence and called no witnesses. He told the Alexandria Town Talk, after resting his case without calling any witnesses, that he knew he would be second-guessed by many, but was confident that the jury would return a verdict of not guilty. "I don't believe race is an issue in this trial. I think I have a fair and impartial jury." The jury deliberated for less than three hours and found Bell guilty on the maximum possible charges of second-degree aggravated battery and conspiracy. He faces up to a maximum of 22 years in prison. Jena, Louisiana, unfortunately, is not that unusual. The United States has over 2.2 million people in its prisons and jails. A recent report by the Sentencing Project shows that African Americans are jailed at nearly six times the rate of whites, and Hispanics are jailed at nearly twice the rate of whites. In some American States, blacks are jailed at more than 12 times the rates of whites. One in nine African American men between the ages of 25 and 29 is now in jail. If these rates of incarceration continue, one in three African Americans born in the United States today can expect to spend time in prison. Human Rights Watch reports that though African Americans are but 12 per cent of the United States population, they constitute 30 per cent of the people arrested, 41 per cent of those in jail and 49 per cent of those in prison.
Jena, Louisiana, is a dramatic illustration of the deep problems of race and class in the operation of the criminal law system in the United States. While advances have been made, much work remains before anyone can really call this justice.