TONY COX, host:
From NPR News, this is News and Notes. I'm Tony Cox.
A new judge has been appointed to hear the cases against five of the remaining Jena Six defendants, who are charged with attacking a white high school student in December, 2006. Last Friday, the judge presiding over the case, J.B. - J.P. Mauffray, Jr., was removed for making biased remarks. He called the black teens troublemakers and a violent bunch. Here with an update on the case is Howard Witt, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Christopher Bracey, a professor of law at George Washington University's School of Law. Gentlemen, welcome to News & Notes.
Mr. HOWARD WITT (Reporter, Chicago Tribune): Hey, it's great to be on.
Professor CHRISTOPHER BRACEY (Law, George Washington University): Hello.
COX: Howard, let's start with you. It's been almost a year since 20,000 protestors descended on the small town of Jena, Louisiana to bring national attention to the case. You were the first reporter to write about it nationally with your coverage for the Chicago Tribune. How did we get here with this change in judges?
Mr. WITT: Well, it's been kind of a long road, but basically, the wheels of justice have been turning slowly and kind of out of the public light in recent months in Jena. Essentially, this is a pretty big victory for the remaining defendants in the case because Mauffray had made repeated comments over the last couple of years regarding these cases that seemed to suggest that he had already made up his mind and was pretty biased. And Judge Yeager, the judge who made the ruling to recuse him, agreed with that. In fact, now, Yeager himself is going to be hearing these cases, and this is good news to many of the Jena Six defendants because they really regard him as a pretty fair-minded guy. Not necessarily that he would rule in their favor, but at least they think they're getting a fair judge with this man Yeager.
COX: While you may not be surprised that Judge Mauffray was removed, are you surprised at all that it was Judge Yeager who was going to replace him?
Mr. WITT: No, not at all. In fact, Yeager was previously appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court to hear a case that we in the media, my newspaper, the Chicago Tribune and other media, brought last year. We were trying to force open the Mychal Bell case. That was the first case that was tried in the Jena case. Judge Mauffray had ruled that that should be closed to the press and the media and the public. We argued that that was in complete contravention to the law - to a number of state and federal laws. Judge Yeager was appointed to hear that case, and he ruled in our favor, the media's favor, that that case had to be held in the open. So he had already basically slapped down Mauffray last year and was already familiar, in general, with the Jena Six cases. So I'm not surprised that the high court put him in charge of these cases now.
COX: Christopher, I want to come to you, because the district attorney on the case says he may appeal the removal of this judge. My question is, how successful would an appeal like that be, given the circumstances of Judge Mauffray's removal by the high court?
Professor BRACEY: Well, I think the likelihood of that - success on that motion would be - on that appeal would be very low, in part, because of the specifics of this case. I mean, you have to remember that La Salle Parish is a single-judge district, and so Mauffray is pretty much the only guy in town there. And if there is the appearance of impropriety, as was suggested by Judge Yeager, there's no one really to replace him with locally there. And so someone else would have to step in.
A second point that's worth emphasizing here is that for the juvenile case - this is Jesse Rae Beard's case - the judge is the sole finder of fact. And if there is an appearance of impropriety there, it's pretty airtight. You know, making comments about being a troublemaker and, you know, the kids being a violent bunch, those sorts of comments suggest that Judge Mauffray has already found the facts before any evidence has been heard. And so this is a strong case for recusal and an unlikely case for success on appeal.
Mr. WITT: And I'd also add, if I might, that now Reed Walters, the prosecutor, faces his own fight to stay on the case. The defendants have filed motions to have him recused from the case and again, they're making some pretty strong arguments about it. Basically, they cite a conflict of interest that Walters has, because Walters is not only the local prosecutor, he is the attorney who represents the school board in Jena. And they say that's an inherent and built-in conflict of interest because as the attorney for the school board, he already was involved in recommending that the Jena Six defendants be expelled last year. He - the Jena school board is being sued by the victim in the case who was beaten up, Justin Barker. And so both the school board and the Jena Six defendants are being sued in a civil suit. So Walters is tied up in that. So they basically say he's fairly compromised as far as prosecuting these cases. So now, his attention is going to be turned to trying to retain his jurisdiction over the case.
COX: Let's broaden the discussion just a little bit, Christopher. There was a rush to judgment recently with the case of the Duke lacrosse team falsely accused of rape. In that case, the North Carolina State Bar Association found that the D.A. violated ethics, harbored bias and suppressed key evidence. Michael Nifong was ultimately disbarred. My question is, are there parallels between those two cases, the Duke case and this one, and do you think in any way that the Duke case may have had a bearing here?
Professor BRACEY: Well, I'm not sure if the Duke case had a bearing on the individual judgments made by the D.A. here. What the D.A. was doing, though, was very similar to what Michael Nifong was doing, which was trying to play to his constituency. Because you've got to remember, these are elected officials. And the local constituency in Jena is not one that's sympathetic to young African-American kids. We do know about the demographics of Jena, Louisiana, and we also know a little bit about that D.A.'s past.
The larger point worth making here is that just like the Duke Lacrosse case, time will reveal what will happen to that local D.A. I suspect that Walters is going to have some problems in the future. It's not just going to be this motion for recusal, but there's going to be greater inquiry and scrutiny put on his record in this particular case. And it may even come from Judge Yeager, because Judge Yeager himself is a former assistant district attorney.
COX: You know, we talked - you talked briefly about the fact that Jena is a community 85 percent white. It may be too soon to tell, Howard, but how are the people who live there reacting to the removal of the judge?
Mr. WITT: Well, I would say most people - most of the white folks there would not be happy about it, just because they're strong supporters of the prosecutor and of the judge. On the other hand, most people in Jena - most white people there would like to see this whole case just go away, because obviously it's brought a lot of scrutiny onto their town. They think it's unfair scrutiny. They think they've been unfairly characterized as a racist town. So I think most folks there would be happiest if these cases simply come to a conclusion, one way or another, and they can kind of, you know, go back to the anonymity of their town.
COX: Obviously, the black folks would have a different point of view.
Mr. WITT: That's certainly true. The black folks are pleased, and they feel like there's finally been a breath of outside scrutiny and a breath of fresh air focused on their town. And so they actually feel like this is all kind of airing out this town's dirty laundry, if you will, and might provide a fairer future for them
COX: How might the change affect the timetable for the rest of the trial against the remaining five defendants?
Mr. WITT: Well, you know, it's - they've all been going very slowly. I mean, they're, you know, they're still at this point now where they're trying to recuse the D.A. The actual cases have not - they're not nearly yet coming to trial. Last year - late last year, there was an attempt to plea bargain these cases. But that all broke apart because basically, there was just not enough give and take as far as what the prosecutor was willing to offer. So they probably will go to trial, and I think the defendants now are a lot more confident that, you know, they can kind of get a fair shake in court.
COX: Christopher, Mychal Bell is the one defendant in the case who has already been tried. His lawyer is now saying that he may ask for the judge to be removed in his client's probation proceedings. Why might this be important?
Professor BRACEY: Well, I think this has more symbolic importance than anything else. I mean, the reality is is that Mychal Bell's going to be on supervised release. And the question is, is this biased judge, or this arguably biased judge, going to interpret his conditions of probation more harshly or maybe even in a biased manner? But those circumstances are largely conjecture. The real value here is one of symbolic importance. I mean, you have a judge that's been found to at least have shown the appearance of impropriety, and getting that as far away from this prosecution and any prior conviction is probably the best thing to do for creating this image of justice now being served.
COX: To follow the point about the judge's alleged impropriety, how would a removal from a case like this - Christopher, I'm going to ask you first this - how might his removal affect the rest of his career, especially as it relates to other cases that he may be hearing?
Professor BRACEY: Well, you know, what's interesting is that he is still the single judge in the 28th district, and that status has not changed. So he will continue to hear all the cases that come up in La Salle. And in terms of reputation, I mean, it happens from time to time that judges either have to recuse themselves or they are asked to be recused and forcibly removed from a case. Ultimately, it doesn't have the same staying power that, I guess, most lay people think it has. From the perspective of the judiciary, it happens with a fair degree of frequency, so it's not uncommon, although being forced to recuse from this particular case may have some more, some additional staying power.
Mr. WITT: Well, and a couple of other quick points on that. First of all, Mauffray will not be there much longer, he is retiring at the end of this year, I think he's 65, I forget his age exactly, but he has already indicated he is going to retire. Also, he has suffered a number of setbacks on these Jena cases. He was initially overruled by the state appellate court for allowing the case against Michael Bell to proceed in adult court when it should've been tried as a juvenile matter according to the appellate court. He was slapped down by Yeager, the media case. Now he's been recused, so he's got a series of rulings that have been reversed and overruled by other judges in higher courts, so I think that there is a lasting stain on his reputation, certainly to folks outside of Jena, if not the people who are his constituents there in the town.
COX: I'll bring our conversation to a close with this, Howard. When are you going back down there?
Mr. WITT: I will probably go back down there the next time there's a significant legal development. But I go to Louisiana quite frequently, so I'll pop in there at some point.
COX: Do you imagine that the coverage of the case will be significantly different than it was before Judge Mauffray, post-Judge Mauffray?
Mr. WITT: Well, you know, the coverage has toned down quite a bit, simply because we are in this kind of very slow motion legal phase now. So I imagine there might be a spike in the coverage when and if there is another trial in this case, but that could be many months down the road. I think, you know, most of the country has obviously moved on from this story. It's kind of old news, but obviously for the defendants themselves, and the town itself, you know, this continues to be a major focus.
COX: I'm assuming, really quickly Christopher, there's not legal precedent that's been set here with regard to the removal of this judge or how the case is proceeding.
Prof. BRACEY: No, actually, you know, the Supreme Court rules in Louisiana provide for precisely what has happened in this case. The one thing that I did notice is that there was no specific procedure for which judge to appoint to the particular cases. And so in that sense, there may be a precedent set for single judge districts, but there doesn't seem to be any clear rule for which judge to select. It seems as though Judge Yeager was selected in part from his past experience with the case, but also his reputation for reforming the criminal docket as he did in Alexandria.
COX: All right, this is a good place for us to stop. Howard, Christopher, thank you both very much.
Prof. BRACEY: My pleasure, thanks.
COX: Howard Witt is a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and Christopher Bracey joined us, a law professor at George Washington University's School of Law.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.