Mychal Bell of Jena Six Released

Mychal Bell, who has been behind bars since December, was released yesterday after a juvenile court judge set his bail at $45,000. NPR's Audie Cornish offers an update on the case.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Jena Six co-defendant Mychal Bell is now free. Late yesterday, he was released on $45,000 bail. Outside the courthouse, Bell was flanked by civil rights activists including the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (Civil Rights Activist): Let America know we are not fighting for the right to fight in school. We're not fighting for the right for kids to beat each other. We are fighting to say that there must be one level of justice for everybody.

CHIDEYA: Earlier in the day, La Salle Parish District Attorney J. Reed Walters confirmed that he would not fight a Louisiana appellate court's decision to re-try Bell as a juvenile.

Bell was accused of beating a white classmate. The 17-year-old was the last of the Jena Six to remain in custody. If Bell is tried as a juvenile, he risked being in prison until he's 21; an adult trial would permit his custody for up to 15 years.

NPR's Audie Cornish has been following the Jena Six case.

Welcome, Audie.

AUDIE CORNISH: Hello, Farai.

CHIDEYA: So we first heard yesterday morning from the D.A., he said he was not going to appeal a ruling that would permit Bell to be tried as a juvenile. He's 17. He was 16 at the time of the crime. How significant is that?

CORNISH: Well, District Attorney Reed Walters has said that this is not about bowing to outside pressure. He went out of his way to say this is not about the rally or even about comments from the governor of Louisiana. But perhaps maybe he has seen the writing on the wall with this case because he didn't - it seems as though he didn't want to fight the state appeals court.

The state appeals court is the one that overturned Mychal Bell's felony conviction saying, wait a second, this case never should have been tried in adult court. This should have been a juvenile court case.

And Walters said, at a certain point, that he just really wanted to get the case to court at all, and he didn't want to go through the appeals process anymore. And Bell's lawyers had asked that same court for a hearing on Mychal Bell's bail, and they were about to make a ruling there. So at a certain point, it seemed that the district attorney felt that it would be better for his case if he just took it to juvenile court.

CHIDEYA: Now, Bell was the last of the Jena Six to remain in custody. How does this affect the other young men, if at all?

CORNISH: It doesn't. Essentially, four of the other boys were not juveniles at the time and can be tried in - on adult charges. And one - other of the boys like Mychal Bell was a juvenile, and his records are, more or less, sealed because that's in the juvenile court process.

But originally, this case had these boys charged with attempted murder. And then, at a certain point, during Mychal Bell's trial this past summer, the case - the trial charges went down to battery. And now, it's down to juvenile court. So I think some could argue that the effect of being in the spotlight has really forced this case to move along in ways that, originally, the Bell family didn't think it was go to.

CHIDEYA: Now, D.A. Walters said that he couldn't find legal grounds to charge the white students with the hate crime for the nooses. Let's hear Walters on that.

Mr. J. REED WALTERS (District Attorney, 28th Judicial District, Louisiana): There's no crime to charge them with. I've thoroughly researched that. As I've said in my last press conference, I've thoroughly researched it. While I consider that to be - though not the greatest thing that an individual could do, it is simply not a crime.

CHIDEYA: So how did his comments fly with local residents and/or among legal experts?

CORNISH: Well, I think that, at this point, the thing to remember is that the noose incident happened in September of last year, and that the fight that led to the arrest of the Jena Six happened in December. And that they did not really - I think that there wasn't a direct link between the two. And that what civil rights activists who came to be involved really were pointing out is that the noose incident at the school where - and the sort of punishment for the white students for that came to represent something of or indicative of the tone in Jena and the tone of racial relations in Jena.

And that that overshadowed the rest of the semester at the school where there were lots of actually other fights in and out of school that don't get talked about in the press before in which, at one point, white students were the aggressors, and another point, the black students were involved. And that the incident that happened in December that led to the arrest of these boys is really the culmination of a lot of things that happened with the noose incident casting a shadow over the whole thing.

At this point, the FBI and the Justice Department say that they're monitoring the case And the Congressional Black Caucus says - or, actually, asking the Justice Department to watch the conduct of the district attorney and to make sure that he's sort of on the up and up about what's he's arguing here. So for now, I would say that his opinion on this sort of stands.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well, Audie, thanks so much for the update.

CORNISH: Thank you for having me.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Audie Cornish.

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