LASALLE PARISH DISTRICT ATTORNEY REED WALTERS made his literary debut in yesterday’s New York Times. Walters begins his letter:

The case of the so-called Jena Six has fired the imaginations of thousands, notably young African-Americans who, according to many of their comments, believe they will be in the vanguard of a new civil rights movement. Whether America needs a new civil rights movement I leave to social activists, politicians and the people who must give life to such a cause.

I am a small-town lawyer and prosecutor. For 16 years, it has been my job as the district attorney to review each criminal case brought to me by the police department or the sheriff, match the facts to any applicable laws and seek justice for those who have been harmed. The work is often rewarding, but not always.

The “so-called” Jena Six have not just fired imaginations; they have inspired tens of thousands of people to travel thousands of miles to peacefully protest in support of what they believe to be a miscarriage of justice. However, Mr. Walters, the case of the Jena Six has also “fired the imaginations” of millions, not thousands, of people, across the world, which is probably why you wrote into The New York Times. In the case of the Jena Six, no one is doubting that a criminal case was brought to you, and no one is doubting your responsibility to review the evidence. They are doubting your “application” of the “facts” in order to determine the appropriate charges. They are questioning your prosecutorial discretion, your initial decision to charge these six young men with second-degree attempted murder and the way in which you have continued to “apply” the facts of this case.

As the judicial system is now proving, Walters’s logic falters.

Walters claims he did not question the “sincerity or motivation” of the Jena Six protesters, and he also states that he found the hanging of the nooses “abhorrent and stupid.” He explains how he and U.S. District Attorney Donald Washington could not determine any applicable laws in which to charge the three young men who hung the nooses.

Walters then explains his understanding of the fight:

Conjure the image of schoolboys fighting: they exchange words, clench fists, throw punches, wrestle in the dirt until classmates or teachers pull them apart. Of course that would not be aggravated second-degree battery, which is what the attackers are now charged with. (Five of the defendants were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder.) But that’s not what happened at Jena High School.

I do not have to conjure any image of a schoolyard fight. Like many people, I have personally witnessed high school fights, some of them violent, during lunch at a public high school in Central Louisiana. This is what usually happened: a swift and sudden act of violence, something loud and unexpected, followed by an instantaneous swarm of students who encircle the fight.

Walters based his “facts” of the case on the conflicting and contradictory statements of more than forty “eyewitnesses” who, according to an article in The Town Talk, all claimed to have seen “everything.” Walters believes Mychal Bell threw the first punch based on the testimony of four to five students, one of whom was admittedly involved in the noose incident and another of whom did not “remember” the attacker until at least two days after the fight. He did not take into account the contradictory statement made by another eyewitness, Coach Benjy Lewis, who clearly and immediately identified “Malcolm Shaw” as the person who threw the punch that knocked out Justin Barker. The student who claimed Bell “kicked” Barker was the same student involved in hanging the nooses, and given Walters’s decision to consider a “tennis shoe” as a weapon, it appears as if Bell may have been convicted based on this testimony. Walters is quick to point out that Barker was not a part of hanging the nooses earlier in the year, but he neglects to mention that one of his star witnesses was directly involved.

The victim in this crime, who has been all but forgotten amid the focus on the defendants, was a young man named Justin Barker, who was not involved in the nooses incident three months earlier. According to all the credible evidence I am aware of, after lunch, he walked to his next class. As he passed through the gymnasium door to the outside, he was blindsided and knocked unconscious by a vicious blow to the head thrown by Mychal Bell. While lying on the ground unaware of what was happening to him, he was brutally kicked by at least six people.

To reiterate a statement made in a previous piece, forty people claimed to see everything, Justin Barker told people at the hospital that he had been attacked by fifteen people, six people were all charged with the same crime based on the same set of “facts,” yet eyewitness statements reveal only a small handful of people were able to identify anyone by name (and those statements are fraught with contradictions and conflicts). Walters writes:

Only the intervention of an uninvolved student protected Mr. Barker from severe injury or death. There was serious bodily harm inflicted with a dangerous weapon — the definition of aggravated second-degree battery. Mr. Bell’s conviction on that charge as an adult has been overturned, but I considered adult status appropriate because of his role as the instigator of the attack, the seriousness of the charge and his prior criminal record.

The “uninvolved student” is not named, but we do know, thanks to an article in The Town Talk, of a student who claimed to “push” Shaw away, after Shaw allegedly attempted to (unsuccessfully) kick Barker. The problem is that Coach Lewis’s statement contradicts this account. If Shaw was the assailant (and not Bell) and he was pushed to the ground by another student, then the fight probably did not occur the way Reed Walters believes it occurred.

In a town in which only 13% of the population is African-American, is it possible that four or five African-American students were identified as assailants in a fight they simply witnessed as bystanders? Is it possible that one African-American student threw the first punch that knocked Barker unconscious (he has never been to identify his assailant, which corroborates Lewis’s account of a hit from behind), another white student pushed this African-American student to the ground, and a swarm of students gathered around? This would explain why forty people claimed to see everything, and this would also explain why so many African-American students were accused of “kicking” Barker. Tennis shoes were everywhere.

In a town already embroiled in racial tension, is it possible that this was simply a violent fight between two or three people that escalated into a pseudo-brawl environment (I say “pseudo” because the actual violence was isolated, but the raucous attention resembled a brawl) in which both African-American and white students pushed and shoved one another to the ground? Is it possible that, given the evidence of this existing racial tension, African-American students could have been unfairly singled out as accomplices and assailants in this fight? And how is it possible that, despite the contradictions and the conflicts in these eyewitness accounts, Reed Walters determined it to be appropriate to attempt to put six young men in jail for the majority of their adult lives?

5 thoughts

  1. Lamar, that is exactly why we have courts, so that a judge or jury can hear the witness and find a defendant guilty or not based upon the evidence. Or do you feel that public opinion and statements gathered by reporters should decide cases without the courts? Do you suggest that we should scrap our judicial system and replace it by opinion polls?

  2. The statements were not simply gathered by reporters, Patrick. Most of these statements were gathered by a white civil rights attorney who has been on the ground and attended Mychal Bell’s first trial.

    I don’t think anyone is implying that we should “scrap our judicial system,” which is why I stated that the system seems to be proving Walters’s logic is faltering.

    You don’t find it a little exhausting to argue, on one hand, that simply publishing one’s opinion based on the facts made available is somehow irresponsible– when this opinion is made in response to AN OPINION LETTER written by the DA and published by the New York Times.

    I also seem to recall scores of “public opinions,” “statements,” and maybe even a poll or two being published by another local blog. At one point, this blog declared Reed Walters to be the real hero of this case.

  3. Lamar, I agree with you that our courts seem to be protecting the rights of the accused without the necessity of interference by Sharpton and crowd, or with the intervention of state and national elected officials. Over billing a crime is a common practice of D.A.’s nationwide, in an effort to plea bargin a case. Our criminal courts are overwhelmed and there are ot enough hours in the day to try each and every criminal case, thus most have guilty pleas entered to lesser charges. That is not racial, as the same thing is done to all races. Until we figure out a better way to handle criminal prosecutions that practice will continue, regardless of protest marches.

  4. Greg, if this were a case of “over billing” the charges in an effort to negotiate with the court-appointed defense attorney, then it was a severe miscalculation, considering that the “reduced charges” have to be addressed in juvenile court, which starts the process all over again. Walters would have the nation believe he is simply a “small-town lawyer” who matched the “facts” to the charges. He made no mention of “over billing” as his legal strategy, and there is no reason to assume this. But even if this were the case, how does this make his position reasonable?

    Is it acceptable to charge six young men with a crime that could put them away for the majority of their adult lives, even though the facts don’t seem to be there, because our criminal courts are overwhelmed and this is standard operating protocol?

    This speaks to the exact type of institutional corruption that those protesting for the rights of the Jena Six also believe exists.

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