There's a major civil rights protest
today in Jena, Louisiana, over a case involving six black high school students who beat up a white teen last December. Five of the students were initially charged as adults with attempted murder; those charges were later reduced. Only one case of the five has been tried so far. Mychal Bell was convicted of aggravated assault, but an appeals court overturned that conviction last week on the ruling that Bell, who was 16 at the time of the incident, should not have been tried as an adult. Bell is still in jail, though, until Reed Walters, the LaSalle Parish, LA, district attorney, decides whether to retry Bell under the original attempted murder charge. (He was unable to meet his $90,000 bail, and has been incarcerated since December.) The other four students have yet to be tried; as they were all at least 17 at the time of the incident, they can be still be tried as adults under Louisiana state law.
Protesters see Walters' charges as racially motivated, especially considering that didn't bring any charges in a separate incident of racial tension. In August of last year, a black student at a high school assembly asked if he could sit under a tree that was traditionally reserved for white students. The assistant principal said yes. The next day, several nooses were hung in the tree. The principal suspended three students involved, but there were no charges filed in the incident. Reed says that he didn't have a case to bring under Louisiana law. Some people in the town think that the Feds should have brought hate-crime charges.
Was that a legal possibility? Based on what I can tell from the outline of the incidents, I think it was. 18 USC 241
--part of the U.S. Code governing civil rights--says that it is "unlawful for two or more persons to conspire to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person of any state, territory or district in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him/her by the Constitution or the laws of the United States, (or because of his/her having exercised the same)."
Clint Winn, an Arkansan, was convicted under this law for cross-burning in 1999. It's a weird law because it requires a conspiracy--an independent actor couldn't be convicted under it--but there appears to have been three students involved, so that part is covered. And a noose seems to be enough to intimidate, considering its symbolic currency and the black student's public request about the tree. Perhaps if the students who were suspended were juveniles they couldn't be convicted under the statute--that I don't know. If there are any lawyers who want to weigh in on this, feel free.
In any case, expect to be hearing more about the Jena Six in the media in the coming weeks. Getting Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton is one thing, but if you want to turn it up a notch, bring in David Bowie