Detroit rally to free the Jena 6 held downtown on Thurs., Sept. 20, 2007. (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe).
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire File Photos
(CNN) -- Mychal Bell, a black teenager accused of beating a white classmate and who was the last of the "Jena 6" behind bars, was released from custody Thursday after a juvenile court judge set his bail at $45,000.
Thousands of marchers filled the streets of Jena, Louisiana, last week.
Bell's release followed an announcement from LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, who said he would not appeal a higher court's decision moving Bell's case to juvenile court.
Wearing a blue striped golf shirt and jeans, Bell walked out of the LaSalle Parish courthouse a week after an estimated 15,000-plus demonstrators marched through Jena -- a town of about 3,000 -- to protest local authorities' handling of the teens' case.
"We do not condone violence of any kind, but we ask that people be given a fair and even chance at the bar of justice," the Rev. Al Sharpton said outside the courthouse.
"Tonight, Mychal can go home, but Mychal is not out of the juvenile process. He goes home because a lot of people left their home and stood up for him," he said.
"Let America know -- we are not fighting for the right to fight in school. We're not fighting for the right for kids to beat each other. We're fighting to say that there must be one level of justice for everybody. And you cannot have adult attempted murder for some, and a fine for others, and call that equal protection under the law. Two wrongs don't make one civil right."
Demonstrators at last week's march were protesting how authorities handled the cases of Bell and five other teens accused of beating fellow student Justin Barker.
Many said they were angry that the students, dubbed the Jena 6, were being treated more harshly than three white students who hung nooses from an oak tree on Jena High School property.
The white students were suspended from school but did not face criminal charges. The protesters said they should have been charged with a hate crime.
Bell's attorney Lewis Scott said the teen was moved from jail to a juvenile facility earlier Thursday.
Walters said his decision not to appeal was based on what he believed was best for the victim in the case.
"While I believe that a review would have merit ... I believe it is in the best interest of the victim and his family not to delay this matter any further and move it to its conclusion," Walters told reporters.
He said last week's march, which included Sharpton and Martin Luther King III, did not influence his decision.
Bell, now 17, was the only one of the Jena 6 behind bars. His bond previously was set at $90,000.
A district judge earlier this month tossed out Bell's conviction for conspiracy to commit second-degree battery, saying the matter should have been handled in juvenile court. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles, Louisiana, did the same with Bell's battery conviction in mid-September.
Prosecutors originally charged all six black students accused of being involved in beating Barker with second-degree attempted murder and conspiracy. Walters reduced charges against at least four of them -- Bell, Robert Bailey Jr., Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw -- to battery and conspiracy.
Bryant Purvis awaits arraignment. Charges against Jesse Ray Beard, who was 14 at the time of the alleged crime, are unavailable because he's a juvenile.
Wednesday, Gov. Kathleen Blanco announced that Louisiana State Police officers will protect the families of the Jena 6 and investigate any threats they have received. A white supremacist Web site posted the names and addresses of the six black teens after last week's march, calling on followers to "let them know justice is coming."
Thursday, the FBI said it had been made aware of allegations of threats.
"Threats are taken seriously, and as these investigations are ongoing we cannot comment further," said Sheila Thorne of the FBI's office in New Orleans, Louisiana.
The December 4 attack on Barker came after months of racial tension, including at least two instances of fighting in the town, sparked originally when three white teens hung the nooses.
Walters has said there was no direct link between the hanging of the nooses and the schoolyard attack, and defended the prosecutions ahead of last Thursday's peaceful march. Blanco defended the prosecutor Wednesday, saying, "He has a solid record and is highly respected among his peers."
Walters also addressed the stress and notoriety the town has been subjected to, saying the only way he and other residents "have been able to endure the trauma that has been thrust upon us is through the prayers of the Christian people who have sent them up in this community."
He also suggested that some kind of "disaster" was averted when thousands of marchers came to Jena last week.
"I firmly believe and am confident of the fact that had it not been for the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ last Thursday, a disaster would have happened," Walters said.
"The Lord Jesus Christ put his influence on those people, and they responded accordingly," he said, without explaining exactly what he meant.
Soon after the district attorney spoke, a local reverend took issue with his comments.
"Obviously, we are serving two different gods here," the Rev. Donald Sidley said. "My Bible says that we should do -- we should be loving, love your neighbor as yourself.
"For him to try and separate the community like he is and then using Christ Jesus to influence the people that Jesus is working on their side, well, that's -- that's absurd. ... God is god of the human race," said Sidley, of the New Evergreen Church.
Teen in Jena 6 case released on bail
From the Associated Press
4:36 PM PDT, September 27, 2007
JENA, La. — A black teenager whose prosecution in the beating of a white classmate prompted a massive civil rights protest here walked out of a courthouse today after a judge ordered him freed.
Mychal Bell's release on $45,000 bail came hours after a prosecutor confirmed he will no longer seek an adult trial for the 17-year-old. Bell, one of the teenagers known as the Jena Six, still faces trial as a juvenile in the December beating in this small central Louisiana town.
"We still have mountains to climb, but at least this is closer to an even playing field," said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who helped organize last week's protest.
"He goes home because a lot of people left their home and stood up for him," Sharpton said.
District Attorney Reed Walters' decision to abandon adult charges means that Bell, who had faced a maximum of 15 years in prison on his aggravated second-degree battery conviction last month, instead could be held only until he turns 21 if he is found guilty in juvenile court.
The conviction in adult court was thrown out this month by the state 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, which said Bell should not have been tried as an adult on that particular charge.
Walters had said he would appeal that decision. Today, he said he still believes there was legal merit to trying Bell as an adult but decided it was in the best interest of the victim, Justin Barker, and his family to let the juvenile court handle the case.
"They are on board with what I decided," Walters said at a news conference.
Walters said Bell faces juvenile court charges of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit that crime.
Bell is among six black Jena High School students arrested in December after a beating that left Barker unconscious and bloody, though the victim was able to attend a school function later the same day. Four of the defendants were 17 at the time, and legally adults under Louisiana law.
Those four and Bell, who was 16, all were initially charged with attempted murder. Walters has said he sought to have Bell tried as an adult because he already had a criminal record, and because he believed Bell instigated the attack.
The charges have been dropped to aggravated second-degree battery in four of the cases. One defendant has yet to be arraigned. The sixth defendant's case is sealed in juvenile court.
Critics accuse Walters, who is white, of prosecuting blacks more harshly than whites. They note that he filed no charges against three white teens suspended from the high school for allegedly hanging nooses in a tree on campus not long before fights between blacks and whites, including the attack on Barker.
An estimated 20,000 to 25,000 protesters marched in Jena last week in a scene that evoked the early years of the civil-rights movement.
Walters said the demonstration had no influence on the decision he announced today, and ended his news conference by saying that only God kept the protest peaceful.
"The only way -- let me stress that -- the only way that I believe that me or this community has been able to endure the trauma that has been thrust upon us is through the prayers of the Christian people who have sent them up in this community," Walters said.
"I firmly believe and am confident of the fact that had it not been for the direct intervention of the Lord Jesus Christ last Thursday, a disaster would have happened. You can quote me on that."
When the Rev. Donald Sibley, a black Jena pastor, called it a "shame" that Walters credited divine intervention for the protesters acting responsibly, the prosecutor said: "What I'm saying is, the Lord Jesus Christ put his influence on those people, and they responded accordingly."
After the news conference, Sibley told CNN that Walters had insulted the protesters by making a false separation between "his Christ and our Christ."
"I can't diminish Christ at all. But for him to use it in the sense that because his Christ, his Jesus, because he prayed, because of his police, that everything was peaceful and was decent and in order -- that's not the truth," Sibley said.
Walters has said repeatedly that Barker's suffering has been lost in the furor that erupted over the case, and that what happened to the teen was much more severe than a schoolyard fight.
Walters also has defended his decision not to seek charges in the hanging of the nooses, which he said was "abhorrent and stupid" but not a crime.