MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Later in the broadcast, the latest in our series of conversations about doing good. We'll talk with a woman who founded "Dress for Success." She was a 23-year-old law student, and she'll tell us how she did it. Also, snitching. One author's provocative theory about why so many people won't call the police. That's coming up.
But first, there's been a development in the Jena Six case, the case that brought 20,000 protesters through Jena, Louisiana last September. Mychal Bell, the first of the six young men facing trial in the case, has accepted a plea bargain that substantially reduces the charges against him. Bell and five other black teenagers in Jena have been at the center of a national civil rights debate after they were initially charged with attempted murder for assaulting a white teen. Under the deal, Bell pleaded guilty to a juvenile charge of second-degree battery. The district attorney agreed to reduce his charges and give him credit for time served. The deal was made just three days before his trial was set to begin.
Joining me to talk more about this is Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Witt. He's covered the case from the beginning. He joins us from his home in Houston, Texas. And Mychal Bell's lead attorney, Louis Scott; he joins us from his office in Monroe, Louisiana.
Welcome to both of you and thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. HOWARD WITT (Reporter, Chicago Tribune): It's good to be here.
Mr. LOUIS SCOTT (Mychal Bell's Lawyer): Hello.
MARTIN: And Mr. Scott, you've been representing Mychal Bell since he first faced the attempted murder charges. What happened to bring this deal together now? I assume you tried to get the charges reduced before?
Mr. SCOTT: I've been representing him since June of this year.
MARTIN: Okay. So what happened to bring this deal together now?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, there had been ongoing negotiations back and forth for a period of time, sometimes directly, sometimes through intermediaries, sometimes through other lawyers. So it was just - this was a time when everything fell together.
MARTIN: Under the plea agreement, how much time will he serve and when is it likely that he will be released?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, he could be released anywhere between now and June.
MARTIN: And what - why is there some ambiguity about that?
Mr. SCOTT: Because time is calculated by Office of Youth Development, so - and also, they make the determination regarding where he would be held during his sentence. At this point it's in the executive branch that it is not in judicial branch so they would make a calculation that he would receive this amount of time based upon the amount of time that the judge gave him. Plus they would determine - does he go home with his parents or will he go to a facility that's a secure facility, or whether not he would be placed in a group home where he would be able to attend regular school and things of that nature.
MARTIN: Well, LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters said in his news release about the decision that one of Mr. Bell's attorneys - I assume that was you - contacted him to discuss a settlement of the case - that basically, your side reached out to him. So why did he - why did your client agree to accept the plea?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, I mean, there are a lot of considerations when you accept a plea. The first consideration is whether or not the state can prove its case. And when we entered the case, he had already been found guilty in adult court based upon the same facts. And even though there were other facts that we would have to present, then there was still a question of whether or not he would be found guilty on those facts. And since the court of appeals ruled against us relating to recusing this judge, then that meant that we were going in front of the judge who had already made a decision in the case before.
So another consideration is the desires of the client and his family. So in this particular case, the mother was very much in favor of a plea agreement and Mychal himself was in favor of it.
Also, some of the main issues did not relate to whether or not he had struck a blow. Some of the issues related to whether or not he was charged in the right court. Some of the issues related to the seriousness of the injury, whether or not there was a dangerous weapon involved, whether or not he could be charged with the more serious crimes that he was charged with. So, substantially — I mean, so the plea agreement substantially eliminated most of those factors.
MARTIN: I mean are you saying that there would have been witnesses that would have testified to those facts? Is that what you're saying?
Mr. SCOTT: Say what now?
MARTIN: Are you saying that there was evidence or there were witnesses that would have testified to those facts against your client? Is that what you're saying?
Mr. SCOTT: I'm saying the same witnesses who had testified before…
Mr. SCOTT: …would still have been available to testify against him. But, (unintelligible) what happened with the plea agreement that it eliminated the aggravated nature of it. It eliminated the conspiracy. So it eliminated the possibility of attempted murder charge and…
MARTIN: We're having a little trouble here, Mr. Scott. We're having - Mr. Scott, we're having a little trouble hearing you. So I'm going to ask you one more question just in case we lose that line if you can still hear me. Can you still hear me? Oh.
Mr. SCOTT: Hello?
MARTIN: Mr. Scott. Okay, we're having a little trouble hearing you so I'm going to ask you one more question just in case we lose you and I hope we don't. But that as you mentioned, Mychal Bell's mother, Melissa Bell, said that it was a difficult decision but having her son in jail for so long was weighing on her. We were able to reach both of Mychal Bell's parents last night, and Melissa Bell confirms that she would like her son to be out of jail. But his father says he strongly disagrees with the decision, and he says that he should never have been charged and that now he's paying a price. (Unintelligible), how do you respond to this, this disagreement between the parents?
Mr. SCOTT: Well, the mother was the custodial parent, and since Mychal is almost 18 years old, his decision weighed heavily into it.
MARTIN: All right. Howard Witt, what's the significance of this development now? Do you think it will bring any closure to this or will lower this sort of the temperature around this case or perhaps not?
Mr. WITT: Yes and no. I think it does all of those things. I think what we're seeing here is a harbinger of kind of the end of this case. The district attorney has actually been in discussions with all of the defendants in the case, and those discussions are at various points of kind of progress. But, you know, those plea agreements are kind of out there for all of these things.
And that, actually, that would probably suit everyone in the case, if these cases were somehow pleaded out. It would suit the families because many of them just want this to be over with. It would suit the town of Jena, which also very much wants to focus off of it. It's been very - it's been seared by the negative attention that it's gotten in the media over the last few months, and they just want this thing to go away.
And even the district attorney, who has been very zealous in going after this case, he too has other political aspirations. It's said that he wants to run for district judge next year, and he does not want to be the guy who has continued to bring all this negative publicity onto the town. So it's kind of in everybody's interest that this case go away now.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're talking about the Jena Six case in Louisiana with Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Witt and Mychal Bell's lead attorney, Louis Scott.
Howard, the family of Justin Barker, the white teenager who was allegedly beaten by the Jena Six, filed a lawsuit. He's suing the school board, the suspects who are already adults and the parents of the younger suspects. What are the grounds for this?
Mr. WITT: Well, you know, he - it's a civil lawsuit and obviously that family feels that, you know, they should get some compensatory damages for what was done to their son. They say that he's had tens of thousand dollars of medical bills. They say he continues to suffer a kind of long-term effects of the beating that he suffered. He has ulcers. They say he still has some problems with his eyesight.
I actually talked to Justin's father a couple of days ago and he, you know, he - they're still very much seeking some kind of justice. But on the other hand, they're also - I asked him, are you okay with the fact that these cases might get plead out now. And he said, yes, as long as there are some punishment involved and these kids don't walk away with nothing. You know, he too, feels like the best thing for his family would be for this thing to kind of get out of the public spotlight and to be resolved. As far as damages go, I mean, all of these families of the Jena Six, you know, these are all pretty impoverished folks. And so I think that where they think that deep pockets might be are the school board obviously, which would have access to some money. And also the Jena Six families raised close to half a million dollars in various funds for their various defenses. And I suppose they might think that there are some of that money that they could go after as well.
MARTIN: Mr. Scott, the critics of the town say that school officials that participated in this, in essence, by failing to deal aggressively with the fallout from these nooses who were hung in the tree. That was the initial incident that sparked these racial confrontations between the white students and the black students.
But there are also critics of the Jena Six. They argue that this was six on one, six guys jumping on one guy. And they also say look, he was not - Justin Barker was not responsible for the underlying noose incident. What do you say to that?
Mr. SCOTT: That's false. As a matter of fact, one thing that's been hidden throughout this case - and because nobody has been in the position to say it until now - but Justin even took part in the incident that brought about him getting punched.
MARTIN: Which was what?
Mr. SCOTT: I think the - what I'm saying is that on that same day, Justin had been calling people niggers and had been throwing vegetables, or - I don't know what he'd thrown - but people with him threw vegetables at some of the African-American students. So…
MARTIN: You have - I'm sorry. Do you have confirmed information, testimony that Justin Barker used the N-word to refer to the African-American students?
Mr. SCOTT: Yes. I mean, that was Mychal's statement.
Mr. SCOTT: I mean, he didn't - Mychal didn't just go up and punched him for nothing.
Mr. SCOTT: So although under the law, that's not considered as justification. It's still - everybody needs to come forward and say what they did or what other part that they took in it. But the school board is trying to hide their participation by failing to protect the rights of these African-American children. And Barker and his friends need to come forward and talk about what they did to incite these things that occurred at the school. And other young men who was with Barker need to come forward and talk about the fact that they had attempted to start this confrontation right outside of the cafeteria.
MARTIN: Attorney Louis Scott is leading the defense of Mychal Bell, the first of the Jena Six to face trial. He recently made a decision to accept the plea bargain. We also spoke with Chicago Tribune reporter Howard Witt. He's the southwest bureau chief. He spoke with us from his office in Houston, Texas.
Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.
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