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2007-09-18

Thousands Expected to March in Jena to Protest Pending Charges Against High School Students

Guests

Lewis Scott, Mychal Bell’s attorney on the phone from Monroe, Louisiana.

Tina Jones, mother of Bryant Purvis.

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Thousands of people are expected to gather in Jena, Louisiana, on Thursday to protest the pending charges against six African-American high school students. Last week, a Louisiana appeals court threw out the conviction of 17-year-old Mychal Bell. Bell was supposed to have been sentenced for attempted second-degree battery this Thursday. He has been jailed since January, unable to meet his $90,000 bond. We speak with Lewis Scott. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Jena, Louisiana, where thousands of people are expected to gather Thursday to protest the charges against six African-American high school students. Last week, the Louisiana 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the conviction of 17-year-old Mychal Bell. The court ruled he should not have been tried as an adult. Bell was supposed to have been sentenced for attempted second-degree battery this Thursday.

Mychal Bell and five other students were arrested for beating a white student during a schoolyard fight last December. The fight occurred after white students hung three nooses on a tree in the schoolyard. Bell has been jailed since January, unable to meet his $90,000 bond. As of this morning, he remains in prison, waiting for his new bond to be posted.

The Associated Press is reporting that District Attorney Reed Walters plans to appeal Bell’s overturned conviction at the Louisiana Supreme Court.

Lewis Scott is the lead attorney for Mychal Bell. He joins us on the phone right now from Monroe, Louisiana. Welcome to Democracy Now!

LEWIS SCOTT: Good morning. How are you doing?

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you tell us the status? What happened with Mychal Bell’s conviction?

LEWIS SCOTT: It was overturned by the 3rd Circuit on the basis of the fact that he was only 16 at the time of the charge. So, therefore, he should not have been tried in Louisiana as an adult. As a matter of fact, the charges that he was convicted of were not charges that an individual can be charged as an adult for if they’re under 17 years old.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you go back and explain this case to us? We’ve been covering it on Democracy Now! We’ve just returned from Jena, Louisiana. We’re going to be playing an interview with one of the moms, in the minute, of the Jena Six. But explain what happened and why Mychal Bell was tried first and separately.

LEWIS SCOTT: Well, I don’t know the answer to that. I don’t know why the district attorney chose to try Mychal first. By the time I entered the case, the trial was already over. So I entered the case about June or early July of this year, and at the time he had already been convicted. I’ve not been able to determine why he was tried first.

AMY GOODMAN: So you have this situation where last September a black student asked the principal if black students could sit under the tree in the Jena schoolyard. The principal says yes. The black students go to sit under the tree. The next day, the three nooses are hung. Some students are suspended for a couple of days. Tensions mount. It goes for a few months. Then one of the Jena Six, Robert Bailey, goes to a party. He’s beaten up by whites. In the next few days, he goes to the local convenience store, the Gotta-Go, and one of those white men has a weapon. Robert grabs it from him, runs home.

Then, the next day is the schoolyard fight, and six African-American students are charged. They’re charged with second-degree attempted murder, facing each a hundred years in jail. Mychal Bell is tried first. He refuses the plea bargain. And so, they drop the attempted murder charge, but charge him with aggravated battery and said the dangerous weapon was his tennis shoes. And he is convicted by an all-white jury, from an all-white jury pool, and facing 22 years in jail.

You then came into the picture after he was convicted. And now the judge, before the court threw out the conviction, said that they were going to drop the conspiracy charge, is that right? He was charged with conspiracy and aggravated battery?

LEWIS SCOTT: Yes, what happened, the district judge threw out the conspiracy and the 3rd Circuit threw out the aggravated second-degree battery. So you had one charge thrown out at a district level, one charge thrown out at the appellate level.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is Mychal Bell still in jail? The other students, one after another, eventually got out of jail as their families tried to make the bail. Theo Shaw was the last of them to be released just recently. But why is Mychal still in jail?

LEWIS SCOTT: Well, after Mychal was convicted, his bail was revoked. And then, after that, the cases were thrown out. At the present time, our position is that he should not be in jail. However, he does have one juvenile charge of conspiracy still pending against him as a result of him being charged with that charge after the 3rd Circuit threw out the adult conspiracy charge. So, therefore, he’s being held in jail now. And I’m not exactly sure what the reasoning is, but that’s a part of what we’re challenging at the present time.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was he charged as an adult?

LEWIS SCOTT: Well, I can only speculate at that. But what happened was, he was first charged with attempted murder, which is a charge that you can be charged as an adult for. And then, the attempted murder was downgraded to aggravated second-degree battery. Aggravated second-degree battery is not a charge that you can be charged as an adult for. So it’s possible that the purpose was a procedural maneuver to charge the greater charge to change the jurisdiction and then try to determine — I mean, try to keep the jurisdiction in the district court rather than in the juvenile court. But I would only have to speculate regarding the motivation in charging that and then reducing it.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain, Lewis Scott, how it was that all of these young people were charged with attempted second-degree murder originally and still some facing a hundred years in jail? And the response in the Jena community?

LEWIS SCOTT: I wasn’t quite able to understand what you said on the last question.

AMY GOODMAN: How the boys were charged with second-degree attempted murder, facing a hundred years each in prison originally.

LEWIS SCOTT: Well, in Louisiana, the district attorney has a lot of discretion in determining what charge he’s going to charge. But, again, to answer that question, I would have to deal with the motivations of someone else in order to answer the question. So I really can’t answer that question regarding what the district attorney’s motivation was in charging such a tremendous crime in this particular circumstance.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the DA, the District Attorney Reed Walters, after the nooses were hung from the tree and then the students, the black students, protested and all went to stand under the tree, came in with police, according to teachers and students, to the school. They held an assembly, and he warned the students. He said, "I could wipe out your lives with the stroke of a pen." And then you have the schoolyard fight, and he charges them with attempted second-degree murder.

Mychal Bell is charged. He is convicted by an all-white jury, from an all-white jury pool, and he faces first 20 years, and then, when they drop the conspiracy charge, something like 15 years. His original lawyer did not bring up one witness in Mychal’s defense. Will you be charging incompetent counsel in that case? He had a public defender.

LEWIS SCOTT: Well, it’s not up to us to charge. But that was one of the things we were investigating. However, we won’t actually be going any further with that, because that entire charge was thrown out. So that was something that we were looking into prior to the time that the 3rd Circuit made its ruling, but after the 3rd Circuit made its ruling, then that pretty much gave us the opportunity for a new trial without dealing with all of those issues. So that was something we were investigating into, but at the present time it’s not something that we are dealing with under the present circumstance.

AMY GOODMAN: If Mychal Bell is charged as a juvenile, what does he face?

LEWIS SCOTT: A maximum of up to 21.

AMY GOODMAN: Years?

LEWIS SCOTT: Up to his 21st birthday, I’m sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: Up to the age of 21. And he has been in jail now for, well, almost 10 months. He was a football star. They expected a lot of Mychal, going on to college on a football scholarship. Have you visited Mychal? What are his spirits like in jail?

LEWIS SCOTT: Well, they range from being cautiously optimistic to being optimistically cautious. That is, he’s happy over certain things that happen, but then there are other things that cause him to feel like things are not going very well, mainly because he hasn’t been able to have his freedom. So I think that’s what bothers him most. So he may be happy about good decisions and things of that nature, but he doesn’t really feel the full impact of that unless he’s released.

AMY GOODMAN: Lewis Scott, what is the impact of the public exposure of this case, as it grows around the country, and then the protests? This one on Thursday, there are many people expected to show up in Jena, Louisiana.

LEWIS SCOTT: Again, I wasn’t able to hear.

AMY GOODMAN: What is the impact of the public exposure and the public protest, this large protest expected for the day it was expected that Mychal Bell would be sentenced, now unclear what will happen with the overturning of the decision and the district attorney saying he will appeal?

LEWIS SCOTT: Well, I intentionally try not to evaluate the impact of things of that nature. What I try to do is to concentrate on the legal effort, to make sure that everything is done legally. But then, I don’t really get involved in determining how what is done in the public will affect the legal process.

AMY GOODMAN: Well we will certainly follow what happens. We’re just back from Jena. I want to thank you very much. We hope to talk to you again, Lewis Scott, the new attorney for Mychal Bell, who remains in jail. Thanks for joining us.

LEWIS SCOTT: OK, thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll talk to the mother of one of the Jena Six, and then we’ll have a debate on the role of Blackwater in Iraq. The Iraqi government says they’re throwing the security company out. Stay with us.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: I was in Jena, Louisiana, earlier this month and visited Jena High School.

AMY GOODMAN: I’m here in the Jena High School courtyard, standing in front of, well, where the infamous tree once stood. This is the tree where, last September, after black students asked the school authorities if they could sit under its shade, the next day nooses appeared, hanging from its branches. In the last few weeks, authorities cut the tree down.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, one year after the nooses were hung from the tree, the case of the Jena Six is drawing thousands to the small town of Jena, Louisiana, this Thursday in protest.

Mychal Bell is the only one of the Jena Six who remains in prison, but it’s been 10 months since the boys were arrested for the schoolyard fight. Seventeen-year-old Bryant Purvis hasn’t even been arraigned. The court has just set his arraignment date for the first week of December. He is the only remaining member of the Jena Six to be charged as an adult with attempted second-degree murder.

I spoke to Bryant Purvis’s mother, Tina Jones, at her house earlier this month. We met on her front porch in Goodpine, an all-black community just outside Jena. Bryant Purvis was expelled from Jena High School and is now studying in Dallas, Texas. He’s living with his uncle, Jason Hatcher. Hatcher grew up in Jena. He plays professional football for the Dallas Cowboys. I began by asking Tina Jones to explain what her son has been charged with.

TINA JONES: He’s charged with second-degree attempted murder and conspiracy to commit second-degree attempted murder.

AMY GOODMAN: Tell me about the whole lead-up to the schoolyard fight. What happened in September when the kids first went to school?

TINA JONES: Justin Purvis, which is Bryant Purvis’s cousin, asked the principal if they could sit under this tree, where normally white kids sit. And the principal told them that anybody could sit under the tree. So Justin, along with my son Bryant and several other kids, went under the tree and sat and stood, or whatever, and the next morning they came to school and found nooses hung from the tree.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did they do?

TINA JONES: Well, my son, he didn’t know about it at first. And when he did go to see, the noose part of the rope had been cut off, and just the rope itself was hanging. But when I found out about it, it was at work, from some of the other parents talking about it. Bryant didn’t come home and tell me. So when I got home that day, I asked Bryant about it. And Bryant told me, "Yes, ma’am." But he didn’t really understand what the noose part of it meant. So, you know, and he was like, "Well, what is that, anyway?" And, you know, we went into detail as to, you know, what it represented or whatever.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you tell him?

TINA JONES: You know, I said, nooses hanging from a tree is normally how they, you know, done black people or slaves back a long time ago. You know, and he was like, "Oh." He said, "I didn’t know." You know, but he didn’t actually see the noose part hanging from the tree.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, what did they do then, after that, the next day?

TINA JONES: It was cut off, and, like I say, a lot of the parents were complaining. The kids, you know, started bickering about it, you know, towards each other, you know, the black and the white kids. And, you know, we went to the school board. And, you know, media came in, and we discussed it. But they all decided it was just a prank. And then after that, they decided to give the kids three days in alternative school. So it was just —

AMY GOODMAN: Three days?

TINA JONES: Three days.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, the principal wanted them expelled, is that right?

TINA JONES: Well, when you do anything, it’s suggested, you know, for an expulsion hearing. That’s just mandatory that they do that — not per se he felt that way, that’s just, you know, the way they do that.

AMY GOODMAN: But then he was overridden by the superintendent?

TINA JONES: Right, the superintendent. And they got three days in school suspension.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you feel about that?

TINA JONES: I didn’t agree with that. I think there should have been some more steps taken in that case, you know? It should have been more than just three days.

AMY GOODMAN: Were they white students?

TINA JONES: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Three?

TINA JONES: Three white students.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, then what happened?

TINA JONES: After that, you know, it was just a lot of bickering and fussing and complaining, you know, from parents included. And after that, an assembly was called, where the DA come in and told the kids, you know, enough is enough, they needed to stop what they were doing, it was just a prank, and that, you know, he could be their best friend or their worst enemy, or he could make their lives go away with the stroke of a pen. So, after that, then a series of fights, you know, took place, one being at the Fair Barn and one at Gotta-Go, before the actual fight on December 4th.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened at the Fair Barn?

TINA JONES: At the Fair Barn, Robert Bailey and Ryan Simmons was there, and several white kids, including one that’s not even in high school, jumped Robert and beat him up. And when the cops were called, the cops just told him to get back on his side of town. Nobody was charged in that case except for one white guy, which is, you know, a guy that’s not in school, and he was only charged with simple battery in that case.

AMY GOODMAN: And the next day?

TINA JONES: The next night, Robert and Ryan was at Gotta-Go, and one of these same guys that they were into it with the night before seen Robert and him at the store, where they had a few exchanged words. And the guy went to his truck and got a gun and pulled it on Robert and Ryan. And Robert then took the gun from the guy and ran with it. And Robert and Ryan was charged with armed robbery, theft of over $500 for that. And that white guy was not charged with anything for pulling the gun on them.

AMY GOODMAN: And that next day was the fight at school?

TINA JONES: December 4th was the fight at school. And my son told me that they were — had recessed for lunch, and after lunch they were all gathered in the gym, because, you know, the main building had burned. So they weren’t hanging where they usually hang. They were all in the gym. And the bell rang for them to go back to class.

And Bryant said they got up to come outside. As they were coming outside, he was on his way up the stairway, when he heard a lick. Him and his girlfriend and some of his friends turned around. He said he jumped up on a rail by the stairway to see if he could see what was going on. And he said that’s when he seen Justin laying on the ground.

And at that point, he said the teacher was hollering, "Y’all need to get to class! I’m going to start writing names down!" And his girlfriend and several other girls started to proceed towards the fight. And Bryant told his girlfriend and the other ones, "Let’s go to class. Somebody’s going to get in trouble." So they went on to class.

And after that, several other kids was arrested from school, within an hour. Bryant came home that day and told me that a fight had took place at school, and several of the kids was arrested. And, you know, I said, "Oh, yeah?" And he said, "Yeah." And he named, you know, who some of the kids were that was arrested that day. And he went on to his room.

So, the next day, I was at work, and my auntie came to my job looking for me.

AMY GOODMAN: Where do you work?

TINA JONES: At La Salle Nursing Home. And my auntie come up there looking for me, and she told me that Bryant had called and said that he was at the courthouse, he needed me to come down there to see what was going on. So I didn’t think it had anything to do with the fight that happened the day before. I thought it was something else that had happened at school, because so much had been happening.

But when I got up there, the police officer told me Bryant had been charged for kicking Justin, said he was charged with aggravated battery. I said, "Well, I need to see about bonding him out." And he told me that Bryant would have to go before the judge. So that was the next evening. So — and when we went to his bond hearing, that’s when we found out the charges had been upgraded to attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy to commit. And they set his bond at $70,000. So Bryant spent two nights and three days in jail. And we used a bondsman, also used — mortgaged, you know, the property to get him out of jail. And he’s been in Monroe and Dallas ever since then.

AMY GOODMAN: Going to high school?

TINA JONES: Yeah. He’s going to high school in Dallas now.

AMY GOODMAN: He was expelled from Jena High School?

TINA JONES: He was expelled from Jena High School.

AMY GOODMAN: The day after the nooses were hung, did the black students protest under the tree?

TINA JONES: Yeah. They just went under the tree, you know, and, you know, talked or whatever, you know.

AMY GOODMAN: And when the DA came in and said that he could wipe out their lives with the stroke of a pen, what did Bryant think he meant?

TINA JONES: I really didn’t ask him. I just was so upset with, you know, him threatening the kids, you know, that I didn’t even ask him, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: Who did you, who did Bryant think he was targeting, he was talking to?

TINA JONES: He felt like he was talking to the black kids.

AMY GOODMAN: Even though it was the white kids that had hung the noose.

TINA JONES: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: So you got Bryant out after two days.

TINA JONES: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: Two nights and three days.

TINA JONES: Mm-hmm.

AMY GOODMAN: And how is he now?

TINA JONES: He’s OK now. He’s trying to adjust, you know, to going to school, you know, having to be removed out of the home. That’s a hard thing for him, you know, because it’s really just turned his life upside-down, basically, you know, because when he first got out, he had to adjust to being in Monroe in a private school. And once he adjusted there, over the summer, that school closed. So that’s the reason why he had to then go to Dallas to finish his last year of high school there.

AMY GOODMAN: How has it affected his older and younger brother?

TINA JONES: Well, they miss him a lot, which Derek, he’s already — he’s been out of the home anyway for over a year and a half, because he’s in college and going to school in Monroe. So he’s already been out of the home. But they’re affected a lot, because there’s always a lot of questions and stuff. So it’s kind of hard for them.

AMY GOODMAN: How is Bryant feeling about facing these attempted murder charges?

TINA JONES: It bothers him a lot, but he depends on mama. He thinks mama can fix everything. So he’s hoping I can help him.

AMY GOODMAN: How many years in prison does he face?

TINA JONES: Around 80 years, 80 to life, or something like that.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you feel?

TINA JONES: I don’t like it. It upsets me a lot, you know, because my son had absolutely nothing to do with the fight at all, nothing to do with anything that happened prior to that fight. The only thing he’s guilty of was going up under an all-white tree. So, you know, that’s a hard pill to swallow. And to wake up every morning knowing that the future of your son is in the hands of a DA, that’s a horrible feeling.

AMY GOODMAN: Tina Jones is Bryant Purvis’s mother. We were speaking on her front porch in Goodpine, an all-black community in Jena. Bryant Purvis was expelled from Jena High School after the fight. He is now living in Dallas with his uncle, Jason Hatcher, who is a Dallas Cowboy, plays professional football.

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