FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.
A Louisiana judge has lowered the sentence ceiling for Mychal Bell. He is one of six black high school students charged with attacking a white student in Jena, Louisiana. The so-called Jena Six could still face stiff prison sentences, and that's painfully divided this small Southern town.
For more we've got Jordan Flaherty. He's the editor of Left Turn magazine, and has been in Jena, off and on, all summer reporting on the case.
Mr. JORDAN FLAHERTY (Editor, Left Turn Magazine): Thank you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: It's good to talk to you again. So just give us a quick sketch of the background. What is Jena like, and what happened with these nooses and the fallout from them?
Mr. FLAHERTY: Jena is a small town in northern Louisiana. It's fairly rural. The entire parish has only a few thousand people. There's 2,000 people in the town of Jena, about 85 percent white.
And a year ago, in the beginning of September of 2006, one black student at Jena High School asked if he could sit under a tree that by tradition had been reserved for white students only. The whole schoolyard had been divided between black and white. He was told he could sit wherever he wanted, and the next day there were three nooses hanging from under that tree.
Almost every black student in the school went and stood under that tree in protest. The district attorney of the town called all of the students together into a school assembly - the school assembly, like the schoolyard, was divided mostly by race - and directing his comments at the black students. He said, you need to stop making trouble. If you don't, I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of my pen.
And that, I think, has really set the stage for what became a season of racial discontent and tension, including several incidents especially in December of last year where a group of white students beat up a black student who came to a party. There were mostly white students, where a white former student threatened some black students with a shotgun.
And finally, a white student was beaten up by what was said to be black students at the high school. And now six students, who may or may not have been involved in the fight, but were organizers of that demonstrations under the tree are now being charged with charges up to attempted murder, and face, potentially, a lifetime in prison.
CHIDEYA: So the last attack you mentioned is the one that's really in question. A white student attacked by black students. The white student's name is Justin Barker. Tell us a little bit about that attack and what do you know about why it happened or how it happened.
Mr. FLAHERTY: I will be hesitant to call it an attack. I read the witness statements. They took the school, and police officers took statements from 44 students and faculty members that were there. And it's hard to get a clear impression of what happened, and who was involved. A lot of folks say that white students were taunting the black students who had been beaten up the previous weekends.
It's unclear exactly what happened. But certainly Justin Barker, the white student, was beaten up. He did require medical attention. He was out with friends later that evening, socializing and joking and which is why people feel attempted murder is a completely unwarranted charge in this case. But it was certainly a serious fight at the school.
And the district attorney did not take seriously the black student that was beaten up. He did not take seriously the black students being threatened with the shotgun, but he certainly took seriously this white student being beaten up.
CHIDEYA: Now, let's talk specifically about Mychal Bell, who is one of the Jena Six. His case is unique because he is arguing that his public defender didn't do his job. What happened there?
Mr. FLAHERTY: You know, it's hard to say what the motivation was behind the public defender's actions, but it seemed to many observers that the public defender was visibly angry that Mychal Bell would not take a plea bargain. He - Mychal Bell was offered a bargain. He would get a reduced sentence if he testified against his fellow students. And he said, I'm not guilty, and they're not guilty, and I'm not going to testify against them.
And the public defender - one thing that is clear is he called absolutely no witnesses. And again, from looking at the testimony of folks involved, it's very clear that witnesses could have raised reasonable doubt as to whether Mychal Bell was involved in the fight at all. There was a lot of confusion about who is involved and who is not involved.
And it certainly seems that the district attorney is really pursuing a vendetta in going after these students. And he's really trying to make an example of these students and say that black folks in Jena should not stand up against racism.
CHIDEYA: Vendetta is a strong word. Why do you use it?
Mr. FLAHERTY: I think a lot of people have been very concerned about the actions of this district attorney, especially when he came into the high school flanked by police officers, and made that statement that he could make the students' lives disappear with a stroke of a pen. And then, he sort of pursued that course of action.
He also had made some fairly inflammatory statements that were published in the Jena Times, the local paper of that town. And he seems to have really not taken seriously complaints of racism, the complaints of the nooses, complaints of unfair treatment, complaints of violent attacks against black students. And so it seems like he is very singularly focused on, particularly, these black students.
CHIDEYA: When this all became a national issue, what do you think it did to a town like Jena?
Mr. FLAHERTY: You know, I think people from Jena are very concerned that their town is becoming synonymous nationwide with racism. And I think that they have reason to be concerned. I do think that the district attorney has brought this situation upon the town. And I also think that this Jena case, it's a very clear case because of the different treatment of the white students from the black students. But it also points a problem in our justice system nationwide.
If you look at Paris, Texas, where there is 14-year-old girl who faced serious prison charges for pushing a hall monitor while - that a 14-year-old black girl - while a 14-year-old white girl burned down a house and just got probation. You see the Genarlow Wilson case in Atlanta. You see a lot of cases where people are feeling that black folks are not getting fundamental fairness in the justice system in this country.
CHIDEYA: Well, Jordan, thank you so much.
Mr. FLAHERTY: Thank you, Farai.
CHIDEYA: Jordan Flaherty is the editor of Left Turn magazine, and has been in Jena, on and off all summer reporting on the case.