Louisiana black caucus appeals to Gov. Blanco

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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.

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The Jena 6 Movement

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Hat Tip: by Marisol Bello, USA Today

A grass-roots movement is spreading across black America in support of six black high school students charged with attempted murder for beating a white classmate in the small Louisiana town of Jena.

On black radio, black college campuses and websites from YouTube to Facebook, the young men known as the Jena 6 are being held up as symbols of unequal and unfair treatment of blacks in a case that evokes the Deep South’s Jim Crow era, complete with nooses hanging from a tree.

“People are fed up,” says Esther Iverem, 47, a Washington, D.C., writer who runs a website called Seeingblack.com, which has featured articles about the Jena 6. “It’s another case of young black men railroaded unjustly. We do not want to see this happen to young boys who got involved in a school fight.”

Tenisha Wilkerson, 20, of Chicago, posted a page on Facebook supporting the Jena 6. It has attracted 35,000 members.

“Why is this kind of thing still going on?” she asks.

Symbolism evokes outrage

The events in Jena have caught the attention of national civil rights activists. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III have marched on Jena in protest.

“The case plays to the fears of many blacks,” Sharpton says. “You hear the stories from your parents and grandparents, but you never thought it would happen in 2007. I think what resonates in the black community is that this is so mindful of pre-1960 America.”

For a year, Jena (pronounced JEEN-uh), a poor mining community of 3,000 people, has been embroiled in racial tensions pitting the black community against white school officials and a white prosecutor. It began last August when a black student asked at an assembly if black students could sit under a tree where white students usually sat. The next day, two nooses hung from the tree.

Black parents were outraged by the symbolism, recalling the mob lynchings of black men. They complained to school officials. District superintendent Roy Breithaupt and the school board gave three-day suspensions to the white students who hung the nooses, overruling the recommendation of then-principal Scott Windham that the students be expelled.

Breithaupt and current principal Glen Joiner did not return calls for comment.

In November, an unknown arsonist burned down part of the high school.

Over the next three days, fights erupted between black and white students on and off school grounds. Police arrested a white man for punching a black teen. He pleaded guilty to simple battery.

The skirmishes culminated with a fight in which the six black teens, star players on Jena’s champion football team, were charged as adults with attempted murder. The white student they’re accused of beating, Justin Barker, 17, was knocked unconscious and suffered cuts and bruises. He was treated at an emergency room but not hospitalized.

Mychal Bell, 17, was convicted in May of a reduced charge, aggravated second-degree battery, which carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.

Since then, charges against two youths have been reduced.

Reed Walters, the LaSalle Parish prosecutor who brought the charges, did not return calls for comment.

The anger fueled by the case shows no sign of letting up. More than 1,500 people, including California Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters, rallied at Howard University in Washington on Wednesday. Rallies are planned in Chicago and Boston.

Civil rights groups, including the NAACP and Friends of Justice, plan to rally at the Jena courthouse on Sept. 20, the scheduled date of Bell’s sentencing. Their websites anticipate busloads of marchers from across the country.

The black students’ supporters say the white teens in Jena were not punished as severely as the blacks.

“The question here has always been about fairness and equal justice,” says Tony Brown, a Louisiana radio host. “The bottom line is that there is a two-tiered judicial system. If you’re black, they want to lock you up and throw away the keys. If you’re white, you get a slap on the wrist and get to go home with your parents.”

He points to a case in nearby Bunkie, La., in which three white teens were charged this spring with the minor crime of battery for beating a white teen, who spent three days in the hospital for brain swelling and bleeding.

The case of the Jena 6 has launched “a modern-day civil rights movement,” Brown says.

Tired of the attention

Blacks are overrepresented in the criminal justice system. A 2007 study by the National Council on Crime and Delinquency found that blacks are 17% of the nation’s juvenile population, but 28% of juveniles arrested are black.

“I don’t think you grow up black and think this kind of thing doesn’t happen,” says Maliza Kalenza, 19, a Howard University sophomore from Minneapolis.

Donald Washington, the U.S. attorney for Louisiana’s Western District, says his office investigated the events in Jena but did not find evidence to support a criminal case in the noose hangings. He says black students had sat under the tree where the nooses were hung, too, and he found no evidence that the noose incident led to the fights three months later.

The tree was cut down this summer.

Washington’s office is reviewing the history of Jena school district punishments of black and white students but so far has found nothing inappropriate.

Some people in Jena don’t appreciate the attention.

School board member Billy Fowler says the year’s events have been blown out of proportion. On the other hand, he says, in the unlikely event that another student hung a noose, the incident would be taken more seriously. He also notes that some of the original charges against the six teens, which he says were excessive, were reduced.

“I feel like my town has been raked over unmercifully,” Fowler says. “I’m tired of hearing how racist my town is and it’s just not so. … And the outsiders are not helping any with this.”

New York City pays family of Timothy Stansbury $2million

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Timothy Stansbury, Jr

HAT TIP: Herald Tribune NEW YORK: The city has agreed to pay $2 million (€1.48 million) to settle a lawsuit filed by the family of an unarmed teenager who was shot by police while atop a housing project.

The death of 19-year-old Timothy Stansbury in 2004 “was a tragedy, and we offer our condolences to the family,” city lawyer Ken Sasmor said Wednesday. “We believe the settlement is in the best interests of all parties and hope it will provide some small measure of comfort.”

A telephone call to the family’s attorney was not immediately returned Wednesday.

The shooting occurred while Officer Richard Neri and his partner were patrolling atop a housing project in Brooklyn. Stansbury and two friends had decided to use a roof as a shortcut to another building.

Neri’s partner pulled open a rooftop door so that Neri, his gun drawn, could peer inside for any drug suspects, police said. Stansbury startled the officers by appearing at the door and moving toward Neri, who responded with one shot he claimed he fired by accident.

Though Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the shooting appeared to be unjustified, a grand jury declined to indict Neri.

Kelly later suspended Neri for 30 days without pay and permanently stripped him of his weapon. The victim’s mother said the 30-day suspension was too light a punishment.