THE JENA SIX IS NOT a story about six African-American students assaulting one white student. It is a story about six African-American students allegedly assaulting one white student. During this avalanche of media coverage about the massive peaceful protest, this has been the one crucial point missing from many of the descriptions of an incident that the world is now talking about. For many, this may be a minor point, a rhetorical clarification, but in this case, it is important to remember, because the burden of proof is on the district attorney and not on the six young men accused of this crime.
During the past few days, CenLamar has received a number of comments from people who seem to take for granted that the six young men accused are all equally guilty of the crime of which they are accused (or at least all guilty of participating in the fight) , but they seem to forget the reason people are calling attention to this story is not merely because of the district attorney’s initial decision to charge all six students with second-degree attempted murder, it is also because the nature of the altercation, the context of the series of prior events, and the numerous conflicting eyewitness statements, none of which are able to identify all six students by name as participants in the fight. Again, the burden of proof belongs to the district attorney.
Pursuing Holiness gives this some perspective. It is not as if the fight occurred out of the blue. There is an issue of provocation, and moreover, simply because the DA is alleging that six young men were involved does not mean that the fight was actually six on one. There are some serious conflicts in the eyewitness reports, and at least three (excluding Bell, who is currently being tried, and another minor, who is being charged as a juvenile and to the best of my knowledge has not made any public statements) members of the Jena Six have publicly claimed to simply have witnessed the fight as bystanders.
This is an excerpt from a Town Talk story, via Pursuing Holiness:
“Investigators from the LaSalle Parish Sheriff’s Office have gathered statements from more than 40 people — a number of them students — who told investigators they saw everything that happened. Many of these statements were included in court documents.”
When I was in high school, I witnessed a handful of school fights during lunchtime. Students swarm around fights. And not everybody can possibly be at the same place at the same time, which means every single one of those witnesses had a different angle on the fight. Yet we are told that amazingly forty people “saw everything that happened.” The problem is that when you read through those forty or so witness reports, you find a number of inconsistencies.
“When I heard a black boy say something to Justin, I turned my head and I saw somebody hit Justin,” one student wrote in a statement. “He fell in between the gym door and the concrete barricade. I saw Robert Bailey kneel down and punch Justin in the head. … Then Carwin Jones kicked him in the head. … Theo Shaw tried to kick him so I pushed Theo Shaw down. I also saw Mychal Bell standing over him.”
According to this witness, who admits participating in the fight by pushing one student (who he alleges “tried to kick” Justin Barker), someone (who is not named) hit Justin Barker, Robert Bailey punched him, and Carwin Jones kicked him. Theo Shaw was pushed to the ground by this eyewitness, and according to him, Mychal Bell was simply “standing over him.” By my count, this student implicated three people, excluding himself, in this fight, not six. The admission that this student pushed another student to the ground also provides evidence that this fight involved a swarm of students, pushing and shoving one other, and may actually indict the witness himself as a participant in the fight. This student’s account is later contradicted by the testimony of a coach who witnessed the fight and specifically named Shaw, the young man this eyewitness apparently pushed to the ground, as the person who hit Barker and did not identify Bailey, Jones, Bell, or the other teenager being charged as a juvenile as participants.
When a school fight occurs, students sometimes push and shove one another to get a closer angle on the fight. Many of the eyewitness statements simply referred to a group of black kids. Only one adult was able to name more than three participants in the fight and only after she had immediately read from a list written by another faculty member concerning students who had “misbehaved” during gym.
“Phrases like “stomped him badly,” “stepped on his face,” “knocked out cold on the ground,” and “slammed his head on the concrete beam” were used by the students in their statements.
“Robert Bailey said this past week that he and the other boys weren’t around when the fight happened and that the teachers and principal were making students say what they wrote in statements.“
Bailey’s allegation may seem conspiratorial, but consider this report about Mychal Bell’s trial from Friends of Justice:
At trial, special education teacher Kristy Martin listed off the names of the boys who surrounded Justin Barker as if they were clear in her memory. Although she was forced to admit that she never saw a single student touch Justin Barker, Martin’s ability to name names seemed very convincing. Martin is the only witness thus far who has provided a list of attackers longer than three names.
* In a written statement, given immediately after the incident, Coach Wayne Spence states that he was taking names of rowdy students in the gym during the lunch hour. “I had a list that Ms. Martin obtained from me,” he wrote. This suggests that Kristy Martin specifically asked Spence for the list of names the day of the fight. This explains why she is the only witness to remember more than two or three members of the Jena 6. Most eye witnesses can’t identify a single assailant by name. Most of the students who gave eyewitness statements after the December 4 altercation at the school make references to “a bunch of black kids”.
Despite the fact that forty eyewitnesses reportedly “saw everything,” not one of them was able to name all six of the alleged as participants in the fight. It almost seems as if the names of the Jena Six could have been produced simply as an amalgamation of disparate eyewitness statements. Again, the only person able to remember more than three of the alleged attackers’ names was a teacher whose testimony may be compromised by the fact that immediately after the fight she read a list of names of “rowdy boys” in the gym that was written by Coach Wayne Spears.
Repeated calls to Jena High School Principal Glen Joiner went unreturned.
“It was a rowdy day at school because of what had happened over the weekend,” Bailey said of earlier fights at the Fair Barn and Gotta Go convenience store. “The fight (with Justin) happened so quick. But those of us arrested weren’t even around. Once the fight broke out, we all ran to see what happened, but I wasn’t around when the fight happened.”
Bailey’s statement does reflect the typical nature of school fights, particularly when they are conducted in full view of authority figures: They are quick and sudden, and students tend to quickly swarm around them. This also corroborates the testimony of one of the only adult eyewitnesses, Coach Benjy Lewis. From Friends of Justice:
Coach Benjy Lewis gave two statements immediately after the school incident in which he clearly states that Justin Barker was facing him when Malcolm Shaw (not Mychal Bell) struck Barker from behind. “I saw Malcolm Shaw hit Justin Barker with his right fist to the right side of Justin’s head, right around the temple,” Lewis wrote. “Justin went down face first, knocked out . . .” Most witnesses agree that a single punch knocked Barker out cold. The only adult who witnessed the punch says Mychal Bell didn’t throw it.
According to Lewis’s testimony, Robert Bailey didn’t knock Justin Barker out, and neither did Mychal Bell, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis, or the 14-year-old juvenile defendant.
On Dec. 1, Bailey said he was jumped by six to seven white men at the Fair Barn and that only one was arrested and charged with simple battery.
Two days later, he and friends ran into one of the men involved in the fight at the Gotta Go and the man pulled out a shotgun, Bailey said. Bailey said he wrestled the gun away, but was charged with aggravated battery and theft.
That is injustice and racism, Bailey said.
Last week Jones said that when he went to school on Dec. 4, he could tell something was going to happen, it just felt that way, he said.
He was sitting in the boys gym after lunch, he said, and when everyone left to go back to class, he was in front of Justin and didn’t know what had happened until he “heard the first lick.”
“I wasn’t involved,” he said. “He got hit once, fell to the ground, and that was the end. Everyone just ran up when someone yelled fight, and it seemed like he was getting kicked.”
Both Jones and Bailey said they did not see who hit Justin Barker.”
This is an important piece of the puzzle. A few days before, Bailey had been involved in an altercation in which he allegedly wrestled a shotgun away from a white student who had pulled the gun on him and a friend(s) while they were in a convenience store. Instead of charging the white student, Bailey was charged with theft of a firearm, disturbing the peace, and second degree robbery. Initially, the white student claimed that Bailey and his friend(s) were yelling and running after him, so he had to retrieve his gun. Bailey claims that as they were leaving the store, the white student confronted them by pulling out a shotgun.
The white student had apparently been present at a large party a few days before where Robert Bailey had been assaulted by a white adult (According to Bailey, the attack involved six to seven white men, though only one was charged). Bailey and his friends were trying to get into a party at the Jena Barn. They were told by a white woman they were not invited guests and asked to leave. Then, a white man, later identified as Justin Sloan, jumped in and instigated a fight. The white woman kicked Bailey, his friends, and Sloan out of the Jena Fair, and outside, Sloan broke a beer bottle over Bailey’s head. Sloan was later charged with battery.
There are some glaring problems with the statements of the white student who pulled out his gun. According to Bailey, this white student had been involved in the fight at the Jena Barn, though the student has apparently never made such a claim (He states he was merely present at the party). Supposing that Bailey and his friend(s) yelled and chased after this student, apparently, they chased him directly into the direction of his conveniently placed shotgun, which he then pulled out. How does one “chase” somebody from the doors of a small convenience store on a small lot to their parked vehicle from which the “victim” retrieves and displays a “concealed” weapon?
Either way, the events at the Jena Barn and the convenience store placed Robert Bailey on the radar. His name became known in a town of 3,000 people, only 13% of whom are African-American. And when the fight broke out, his name was tossed around, and Robert Bailey was charged with attempted second degree murder, despite his claim of being a bystander and despite the conflicting eyewitness reports. From Friends of Justice:
Justin Barker was taken by ambulance to LaSalle General Hospital’s emergency room, arriving at 12:25 p.m., according to court documents. A report from the ambulance company stated Barker “denies any pain other than his eye.”
Once in the emergency room, Barker told medical personnel that he had been “jumped by 15 guys” and was unsure of what he had been hit with, according to the emergency physician’s record in the court file. The record noted an injury to Barker’s right eye requiring follow-up medical attention and injuries to his face, ears and hand.
A Computed Tomography scan of Barker’s brain showed no abnormalities, but there were reports of him losing consciousness during the attack, according to hospital records.
Barker was discharged about 2½ hours after being admitted to the ER. Later that night, he attended a ring ceremony at the school, where he was presented his class ring by his parents, something Kelli Barker said her son really wanted to be a part of, even though he was still in pain.
“All that keeps being said is that he was just in the hospital for a little bit and not really hurt,” Kelli Barker said of Justin. “I thank God he wasn’t hurt more than he was. But we have medical bills to show that he really was hurt.”
According to court documents, the initial trip to the emergency room cost $5,467.
Justin Barker was knocked unconscious and has never been able to name his assailant. Eyewitness reports, however inconsistent, do make it clear that a large number of people swarmed around the fight, which may explain why Barker, after being knocked to the ground with one punch, believed he was being attacked by as many as 15 people. A coach who witnessed the fight claimed to have clearly seen and was able to identify Barker’s assailant, but he did not name fifteen people or six people; he named one person.
Forty people claimed to have seen everything. Barker initially said he was attacked by fifteen people. The District Attorney charged six people. Yet the coach who was present named and identified only one assailant.
No one is denying a crime occurred. Justin Barker was clearly assaulted, and the person or persons responsible should be adequately charged. But the subjective determination made by hospital administrators of the expense of a two-hour visit to the emergency room is not “proof” of the severity of one’s injuries; it is proof of the costs incurred by emergency room visits, which, in Barker’s case, included expensive tests. And this hardly justifies the decision to charge anyone, particularly a teenager involved in a school fight, with a crime that could put them away for life. But that is not what happened in Jena, because the district attorney did not just decide to charge one teenager with an offense that could put him away for the rest of his adult life; he charged six teenagers with that crime. Six teenagers, all of whom happened to be black and one of whom had been involved in two previous and controversial altercations with white students, were charged, despite the conflicting eyewitness testimonies and despite any basic recognition of the nature of this school fight.
If the blogosphere and the media want to be honest about this story, then we need to acknowledge, first and foremost, that six teenagers are being charged with allegedly assaulting one young man and that the burden of proof is on the district attorney and not on these young men or their families. And there are many good reasons people are publicly questioning these charges. They seem egregious and vindictive, particularly considering this man’s previous comment to Jena High School students about ending another human being’s life with the stroke of his pen. And there are many good reasons to publicly question the evidence. It seems built on a false foundation of primarily unreliable eyewitness statements. Only a fraction of these statements construct a descriptive sequence of events, and of those, some are burdened by inconsistencies and even admissions of personal physical involvement with one of the accused.
(H/T to the insightful and informative Friends of Justice article “Ineffective Assistance of Counsel: What Blane Williams Should Have Known,” which was written by a man who has been on the ground in Jena and following this case from the beginning).