by Howard Witt
Under pointed questioning from Democratic House members who decried the lack of federal intervention in the racially-charged Jena 6 case, U.S. Justice Department officials revealed Tuesday that they are now weighing an investigation into allegations of systemic racial bias in the administration of justice in the small, mostly white Louisiana town.
U.S. Attorney Donald Washington also said for the first time that the hanging of nooses from a shade tree in the Jena High School courtyard in September, 2006, by three white students—a warning to stay away from the tree directed at black students that triggered months of interracial fights in the town—constituted a federal hate crime, but that federal authorities opted not to prosecute the case because of the ages of the white youths involved.
Jena school officials dismissed the noose incident as a youthful prank and issued brief suspensions to the white students involved, angering black residents of the town.
“Yes, hanging a noose under these circumstances is a hate crime,” Washington, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, told a House Judiciary Committee hearing convened to examine the Jena case. “If these acts had been committed by others who were not juveniles, this would have been a federal hate crime, and we would have moved forward.”
But during the four-hour hearing boycotted by most Republican members of the House panel, many African American committee members said they remained dissatisfied with the reluctance of Justice Department officials to intervene more forcefully in what they regard as the excessive prosecution of six black Jena students for a Dec. 4 attack on a white student.
The white student was briefly knocked unconscious and was treated and released at a local hospital, but Jena District Attorney Reed Walters initially charged the black students with attempted murder. After public outcry about the case mounted, Walters reduced the charges to aggravated second-degree battery.But Walters’ refusal to charge other whites in the town who attacked blacks with similar crimes prompted national civil rights leaders, joined by more than 20,000 demonstrators who marched through Jena on Sept. 20, to assert that the town’s justice system was biased.
"Shame on you!" Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) shouted at Washington, the first African American to hold the U.S. attorney’s post in western Louisiana. "Mr. Washington, tell me why you did not intervene? Six broken lives could have been prevented if you had taken action.”
“I was also offended” by the noose incident, Washington replied. “I too am an African American. I am a child of the 60s, of the desegregation era…But at the end of the day, there are only certain things that the United States attorney can do."
Events surrounding the prosecution of the first of the Jena 6 defendants to go to trial, Mychal Bell, 17, have drawn particular scrutiny from civil rights leaders and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Walters first tried to prosecute Bell as an adult and won a conviction on aggravated second-battery and conspiracy charges in June from an all-white jury in Jena, after a trial that featured one of the white youths who hung the nooses as a prosecution witness. But a Louisiana appellate court vacated that conviction in September, ruling that Walters and LaSalle Parish District Judge J.P. Mauffray had improperly tried Bell as an adult rather than a juvenile.
The appellate court then compelled Mauffray to release Bell, who had been jailed for nearly 10 months on the charges, on bail on Sept. 27. But two weeks later, Mauffray abruptly sent Bell back to jail, sentencing him to 18 months on four prior juvenile convictions for simple battery and criminal destruction of property.
“As we all know, it is illegal under the guarantees of our Constitution and our laws to have one standard of justice for white citizens and another harsher one for African- American citizens,” John Conyers, the chairman of the judiciary committee, said in opening the hearing. “We come to this hearing inquiring as to how we can correct this situation in our nation.”
A senior Justice Department official told the panel that conciliators from the department’s civil rights division had visited Jena several times in recent months and that officials were now considering whether further action is warranted.
“The Department of Justice is aware that there are requests to investigate the judicial system in Jena,” Lisa Krigsten, an official of the civil rights division, told the hearing. “At this time, the Justice Department is gathering information and reviewing that information and taking that request very seriously.”