Hat Tip: By Sherrell Wheeler Stewart, BlackAmericaWeb
The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus asked Gov. Kathleen Blanco to intervene in the case of the Jena Six, but the governor maintains that state law prevents her from acting at this time.
Black Caucus Chairman Rep. Juan LaFonta wrote Blanco a letter on Monday and said he spoke with the governor personally to ask for clemency for Mychal Bell, a 17-year-old jailed following his conviction in connection with a Dec. 4 fight that followed a series of racially charged incidents in the small town of Jena, Louisiana.
“The next thing for us to do is look at the appellate process and look at what can be done through the Legislature,” LaFonta, a New Orleans Democrat, told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
Bell is one of six black youths to face criminal charges in connection with the fight with a white student at Jena High School. He is the first to be convicted and is scheduled for sentencing on Sept. 20. Also on that date, thousands are expected to descend on the central Louisiana town to rally for justice in the case of the youths dubbed the Jena Six.
Earlier this week, a LaSalle Parish judge reduced the charges against Robert Bailey. His attorney, Jim Boren, told BlackAmericaWeb.com that Bailey still faces one charge for aggravated assault and charges of second degree battery and conspiracy to commit the same.
Bailey also faces charges from an incident where a white male pulled a gun on him. He took the gun from the man and was “charged with theft and aggravated assault of the person he took the gun from,” Boren said.
Last month, Judge J.P. Mauffray reduced charges filed against Carwin Jones and Theo Shaw. He also reduced an additional charge against Bell. Weeks after the attempted murder charge was dropped, the judge vacated Bell’s conspiracy conviction, his attorney, Louis Scott, told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
Charges have not been reduced for Bryant Purvis and an unnamed juvenile.
The fight at school that resulted in the criminal charges followed months of incidents touched off in August when blacks sat under a tree used as a regular gathering place for white students. The next day, three nooses were hung from that tree. The white students who hung the nooses were suspended from school for a few days. The black students in the school fight were expelled from school, arrested and jailed. They also had bonds ranging as high as $130,000.
In a statement from Blanco made available to BlackAmericaWeb.com, the governor said, “I must clear up a widespread misunderstanding of my authority in this case. Our State Constitution provides for three branches of state government — Legislative, Executive and Judicial — and the Constitution prohibits anyone in one branch from exercising the powers of anyone in another branch. This issue is currently a matter in the Judicial System, and should those involved in this case suffer any defects, it is their right to address them in that system through the appeals court.”
According to state law, the Louisiana governor can grant a pardon, but only after a person has been convicted and sentenced, said Marie Centanni, Blanco’s press secretary. The person must apply for a pardon and have that case reviewed by the Board of Pardons, who would make a recommendation to the governor.
Louisiana officials have received requests for intervention on several levels.
In addition to the call for clemency for Bell, national leaders also have called for both the investigation of the district attorney’s office in LaSalle Parish and for the dismissal — and even disbarment — for District Attorney Reed Walters.
According to several published reports, Walters visited the school during the unrest last fall and told students, “I could end your lives with the stroke of a pen.”
Boyce Watkins, a Syracuse University professor and political commentator, said Walters’ comments are examples of his abuse of power and further evidence of a trend to ruin the lives of young people.
“I have seen black men get railroaded by prosecutors. I want to fight for them,” Watkins told BlackAmericaWeb.com.
Also the Rev. Al Sharpton has said he wants the state attorney general and judicial oversight agencies to investigate the actions of Walters.
Repeated attempts by BlackAmericaWeb.com to reach Walters have been unsuccessful.
Under Louisiana Law, district attorneys are elected by voters in their parish. “A D.A. can be popular and powerful in their parish,” Scott said. “You have to remember they answer mainly to the voters who elect them.”
According to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office, there are 8,798 voters in LaSalle Parish. Of that number — 7,998 are white and 661 are black. Most of the them are Democrats.
A spokeswoman for the Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti Jr. said it is very rare that a district attorney is removed from office in that state.
Watkins said Walter’s conduct warrants not only removal from office but disbarment. He has started a petition and said he plans to present it to the Louisiana governor and other state officials.
“If Mike Nifong can be disbarred for his handling of the case involving the rich boys at Duke, then certainly this guy is eligible for disbarment,” Watkins said, referring to the former prosecutor who led in bringing charges against members of the Duke University lacrosse team.