Reduced charges for one suspect in race-tinged beating case

Published 5:03 pm Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Attempted murder and conspiracy charges against a black high school student accused in the December beating of a white student amid escalating racial tensions were reduced Monday to less serious charges that could mean far less prison time if he is convicted.

Mychale Bell still faces trial Tuesday on charges stemming from the Dec. 4 beating. Instead of sentences totalling 80 years, he now faces maximum sentences totalling just over 22 years if convicted.

Bell was one of five black Jena High School students charged in the beating, which occurred about three months after three white students were suspended for hanging nooses from a school yard tree.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Another juvenile, whose identity and charges were not released because of his age, was also accused. They were dubbed the “Jena Six” by supporters who say the attempted murder charges resulted from racism by authorities and were far out of proportion to the seriousness of the crime.

Prosecutors have refused to discuss details of the case.

Bell’s charges were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years, and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery which would carry a maximum sentence of 7 1/2 years, according to statutes on the state government Web site.

“I think he feels a lot better since they lowered the charges. At least that’s a good first step,” his mother, Melissa Bell, said after Monday’s hearing.

Still, supporters say they are curious about the latest charges. Statutes define aggravated second-degree battery as involving use of a dangerous weapon and parents of the accused said they had heard no previous mention of a weapon.

It was not immediately clear if the other suspects’ charges would be reduced as well. One other suspect, Theodore Shaw, also had been scheduled for trial this week, but his case was delayed. Trial dates for the others — Robert Bailey Jr., Bryant Purvis, Carwin Jones and the unidentified juvenile — had not been set.

Shaw and Bell, have been jailed since their arrests, unable to make $90,000 bond.

Jena is a town of 2,900, with about 350 black residents. Bailey’s mother, in an interview Sunday, described it as a quiet, safe place, but she also claimed it is marred by overt racism.

“This is a good town to live in for things like no crime, it being peaceful,” Bailey said. “But it’s very racist and they don’t even try to hide it. It’s like, stay in your place or else.”

People here trace the racial tension at Jena High School to late August, when when Kenneth Purvis, was told by the school principal that he could sit in the school courtyard under a tree traditionally used by white students.

The following morning, three nooses were hanging in the tree when students arrived at school.

Whites in the little town may have dismissed it as a tasteless prank, but in the black community it had far more gravity.

“It meant a lynching,” Bailey said. “Everyone knew what it meant.”

Jena High School’s principal recommended expulsion of the three students who hung the nooses. They ended up serving a suspension instead.

“That just set all the black kids off,” said John Jenkins, father of Carwin Jones. “Wasn’t that a hate crime? If anyone was going to be charged, shouldn’t they have been?”

The racial tension led to a series of fights between white and black students, Bailey and Jenkins said.

On Dec. 4, Justin Barker, who is white, was attacked at school by a small group of black students.

Jones, who played football, basketball and track, had enough credits to graduate, Jenkins said. He was not allowed to participate in the graduation ceremony, however.

Jones is working now, Jenkins said. He had several offers of athletic scholarships for college, Jenkins said. Those disappeared when the charges were filed.