Congress Questions 'Jena 6' Lawyers Lawyers and legal advisers defending the African-American men known as the "Jena 6" testified before the House Judiciary Committee Tuesday morning. The team was asked about the legal and social circumstances surrounding the allegedly racially motivated attacks in the central Louisiana town.
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Congress Questions 'Jena 6' Lawyers

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Charles Ogletree is a professor of law at Harvard University, where he's also the executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice. He's an adviser on the legal team defending six African-American young men called the Jena Six.

Earlier this morning, he along - he was among those who testified before the House Judiciary Committee on the legal and social circumstances surrounding severally, racially motivated town's - attacks in the Central Louisiana town.

One of the central events was after African-American students asked if it would be all right if they sat beneath a tree that had been traditionally used by white students. Well, nooses were hung from the branches of that tree.

Charles Ogletree joins us now by cell phone from an airport here in Washington, D.C., where he awaits a flight back to Boston. Charles Ogletree, thanks for being with us today.

Professor CHARLES OGLETREE (Professor of Law, Harvard University; Executive Director, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice): I'm glad to be with you today.

CONAN: And we'd like our listeners to weigh in. Should that initial act, the hanging of the nooses from the tree, should that have been considered a hate crime? And Charles Ogletree, I wonder, as you listen to the testimony today before the House committee, what did you think about that point?

Prof. OGLETREE: Well, it's clear to me that many errors were made in their original decisions about who's going to be prosecuted, and even the people who testified today made that clear. Here's the problem: a noose is a hate crime, and the way it was used was a hate crime. And the government's response today was, well, they were juveniles, therefore we chose not to prosecute them. Not that they couldn't, they chose not to prosecute them.

And that's one of the problems. There's a Louisiana state statute where they could have been prosecuted and they weren't, and there's also federal crimes that could have been prosecuted and they weren't. That's what made people so upset. Why is it that one certain conduct which violates the law with prosecuting another set was handled within the school system? It's a disparity, it's based on race, and it's hard to justify to these circumstances.

CONAN: We should point out the subsequent incident was that one of the white students at that school was beaten, and then some of the black students, the Jena Six, were charged with assault and then tempt to make - to charge them as adults for that attack.

Prof. OGLETREE: Well, they were charged with attempted second-degree murder, not just assault, and they were subject to, in over 20 years in prison compared to the earlier incident where the students who are recommended for expulsion by the principal and the school board, where the same prosecutor who prosecuted them overruled that and said they should be charged with a minor offense. They had suspension in nine days, in-school suspension, but no prosecution outside the school system.

One crime is treated as a school crime; the other is treated as a serious state crime and tried as an adult. And what makes this so appalling is that they prosecuted Mychal Bell, and the court reversed them. He should never been tried as an adult. He should never been in jail for 10 months. And I think that's where the disparity issue comes up. It's not just the noose. It's the combination of different people engaging conduct, being treated to different forms of justice that has generated that enormous amount of response from both sides of the Hill today when we testified.

CONAN: The Reverend Al Sharpton is among those following the Jena Six case closely. He testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill today and here's some of what he had to say.

Reverend AL SHARPTON (Baptist Minister): I think that the federal government and the Justice Department should review the laws that protect juveniles from hate crime. I've seen where people that have been involved in drug trafficking has gotten around those laws by using kids. Are we now going to have a society, where if you want to hang up a noose or paint a swastika you use somebody underage to do it, and therefore we can permeate society with hate by just playing around this juvenile law?

Does the federal government have the same requirement that you have to be grown to commit a hate crime? If it does, we need to visit or revisit whether that law protects us. If it does not, then does that - does the state of Louisiana law supersede federal law? I think they can immediately do this.

These nooses were hung over a year ago, sir. So I know that the wheels of justice may turn slow, but it seems that it's at a standstill because to deal with those nooses does not require interfering in any of the prosecutions of the local district attorney, does not take away any of the power of the prosecutor. It's to say an event happened over a year ago - is state law constitutional and is federal law outdated, where you now have to be grown to commit a hate crime in America? I think that that's a threat to all of us that are in groups that have been targets of hate.

CONAN: The Reverend Al Sharpton in his testimony earlier today before the House Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill. Still with us on the line from airport here in Washington is Charles Ogletree, a professor of law at Harvard and also an adviser to the legal team defending the Jena Six. And Charles Ogletree, listening to Al Sharpton's testimony, he does draw a distinction. But some people will say, yes, but this, for juveniles.

Prof. OGLETREE: Everybody was a juvenile. Everybody in the case was juvenile. The young men who have been accused of assaulting the student were juveniles, every single one of them. So the problem is that once that the juveniles who happened to be white are prosecuted within the school system with less serious sanctions and no risk of going to jail.

The black students on the schoolyard involved in an incident are prosecuted as an adult, with an attempted murder charge that even the appeals court, after Mychal Bell was convicted, reversed. And he should have never been tried as adult.

So what does that it tell you when the same prosecutor slaps the wrist of some and then throws the book at the others? And the difference between the two is the race of those who were accused, the race of those who were the victims.

And that's part of the problem. And I think the good thing, as you'll see from my testimony, is not just trying to forget who to prosecute, but what - as I say today, there's a lot to look at in terms of educational disparities, look at No Child Left Behind - and Congress encourage a way to send them some proposal, limits to address these sorts of issues - and in terms of Louisiana's own civil rights laws.

So it's not just going backward to forget what was done wrong, but how do we go forward to have one unified, cohesive community in Jena, where black children and white children will think that they're treated the same in the school system and in the criminal justice system.

That's all people are asking for today. And I think that's what Congress is looking at to make it a fair system, not one that gives rate any benefit or burden in the criminal justice system or in educational suspensions and expulsions.

CONAN: We're talking with Charles Ogletree, professor of law at Harvard University, also the executive director of the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, and as we mentioned earlier, an adviser to the legal team defending the six African-American young men known as the Jena Six.

If you'd like to join the conversation, our phone number is 800-989-8255. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get a caller on the line. And this is Jason. Jason is calling us from St. Louis, Missouri.

JASON (Caller): Hello, good afternoon. I was wondering exactly how hanging a noose would satisfy the legal requirements of a hate crime?

CONAN: Professor Ogletree, what do you think?

Prof. OGLETREE: That's easy. The noose is part of a pattern and practice of this country, where over 3,000 African-Americans, by and large, were hung and lynched with nooses. So it's not a symbol. It is reflective of a series of acts where people were not punished. It was a way to terrorize the African-American community. And it's not a trivia, a prank or a joke in the 21st century, but because they were so real in Louisiana and in Texas and in Mississippi, in South Carolina and other places for over 40 years.

So it may seem like a trivial matter to you, but that means that we haven't really understood our nation's history, where James Byrd in Jasper, Texas in 1998 was - had a rope around his neck, was dragged through his - decapitated by three whites; or the case of Emmett Till in 1955, a teenager left Chicago, went to Mississippi, and was lynched and no one was prosecuted from those crimes.

CONAN: Well, just a…

Prof. OGLETREE: They aren't just symbols. They are reminders of deadly and destructive acts, and no one should consider it a joke, a prank or something that's trivial.

CONAN: In short, you're saying it should be considered a threat?

Prof. OGLETREE: It's more than a threat. Part of - the fact, it is definitely a threat. The fact of the matter is it's a symbol of a history that we haven't forgotten. We can't forget. You can't ignore somebody painting a swastika - a swastika in someone's door. You can't ignore someone burning the cross.

It is a threat, but it's more than that in the sense that it's an expression of hatred. There's no other way to intimidate - that intimidates one. Here's the other reason that's important. Since what happened in Jena a year ago, we've seen at Columbia University, University of Maryland, Hampstead, New York, all over the country, people displaying nooses.

Why? Because they now believe that there's no punishment. There's no law. There's no need to it. And the fact that people can, with impunity, try to use these nooses as if there was no punishment is a very frightening thing. And we wouldn't tolerate that if they were swastikas. We wouldn't tolerate that if they were cross burnings. And we shouldn't tolerate because it's nooses.

CONAN: Jason, thanks very much for the call. And…

JASON: Thank you for the clarification.

CONAN: …Professor Ogletree, I want to thank you for your time today. We know you got a plane to catch, we appreciate it.

Prof. OGLETREE: Thank you.

CONAN: Charles Ogletree at - of Harvard University.

Howard Witt is a senior correspondent for the Chicago Tribune based in Houston, Texas. He broke the Jena Six story, and he was at the hearings today before the House Judiciary Committee. He's with us now from his hotel room here in Washington, D.C. And Howard Witt, nice of you to be with us.

Mr. HOWARD WITT (Senior Correspondent, The Chicago Tribune): My pleasure. Thanks.

CONAN: Now, who suggested these hearings as a possible inquiry into what happened there?

Mr. WITT: Well, it was the chairman of the judiciary panel, Representative Conyers, who actually came up with this idea after meeting with Reverend Al Sharpton, who had been pushing pretty hard for it. But it really grew out of the entire Congressional Black Caucus, which was up and arms over the Jena case, and very much wanted to make a statement. And I think they accomplished that today with the hearing.

The hearing, in many ways, harkened back to, you know, the nation's civil rights struggles from generation ago. It was pretty emotional hearing.

CONAN: What kind - what was the testimony that particularly impressed you?

Mr. WITT: Well, a couple of things. First of all, Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee - I don't know if you all talked about this already - but she got very upset and really practically screamed at the U.S. attorney there down in Washington, saying why didn't you get involved, why didn't you intervened in this case?

And in addition, I thought it was pretty interesting that the Justice Department - now, after months of being very reluctant to get involve in this case - is now saying that not only are they conceding that the hanging of those nooses does legally constitute a hate crime, which is something new. They haven't said that before.

But they also said that they are now weighing whether to really get involved and investigate in this whole question of the administration of justice in Jena and looking at whether there is some kind of systemic racial bias going on in the way the justice system operates there.

And again, that's something new. They have not said that before that they're actually probing that and deciding whether to investigate that.

CONAN: Howard Witt, stay with us, if you will. We're going to continue taking calls and talking about the testimony today at the House Judiciary Committee, and more of your calls at 800-989-8255. Again, e-mail is talk@npr.org. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Right now, we're talking with Howard Witt, a senior correspondent for the Chicago Tribune who's based in Houston, Texas. He's the man who broke the Jena Six story. Howard Witt was at hearings before the House Judiciary Committee earlier today. He's with us now from his hotel room here in Washington, D.C.

Just a brief reminder, these incidents in Jena, Louisiana happened about a year ago, and there were - an incident started when African-American students at the high school there inquired as to whether it would be okay for them to sit beneath an oak tree that was used by white students.

After they'd asked for a permission to do that, well, the next day, nooses were hung from that tree. There was an escalating series of incidents. One of the white students at the high school was attacked at a gas station in Jena, and six of those African-American students were charged in relation with that attack.

And - well, then, a lot of the legal proceedings have gone on since then, and finally, today before Congress. Howard Witt, what's the status of the charges against the Jena Six at this point?

Mr. WITT: Well, they - all six of these youths were initially charged with attempted murder for this attack on the white student. The student was jumped and knocked unconscious, but wasn't seriously injured.

Those charges were then reduced by the local prosecutor under public pressure to aggravated second-degree battery. One of the students, so far, has gone to trial. His name is Mychal Bell. He was charged - tried as an adult.

An appellate court overturned that conviction, saying he was improperly charged as an adult. So they sent him back to juvenile court. He was out of jail briefly on a bond. And a few days ago, the judge on the case put him back in jail on some previous juvenile convictions that he had. So that case is subject to all kinds of different appeals.

The other cases are all still pending. And again, what we learned today from the House Judiciary Committee hearing was that the federal officials now appeared to be taking a growing interest in this case. And so, we may yet hear more about, perhaps, the Justice Department taking a look at what's been going on in this little town.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. And this is Scott. Scott is calling us from Oklahoma.

SCOTT (Caller): Yes. Hi, Neal. I just wanted to point out to you and your guest that, you know, as despicable as the noose and the idea behind that and it clearly hate speeches should not go unpunished, several people seem to say that they only did, you know - this happened this way and this and (unintelligible) happened this way. Now, when differences arise, they're saying, shouldn't we remember that, you know, besides hate speech there, the difference was a physical attack of six-on-one with, I mean, injuring the student, you know? Isn't a physical attack - isn't that significantly different from a hate speech, although neither are condonable?

Mr. WITT: Yeah. I think - if I can answer that - your caller raises an excellent point. I don't hear anybody saying that the black students, if indeed they're proved to have done this to the white kid, deserved to not be punished for it.

It's always been a question, in this case, of two things. First, proportionality - whether or not that assault justified a, initially, a charge of attempted murder and then later, even a charge of aggravated battery, and also, whether that was in proportion to the way that white students and youths were treated in that town when they engage in a series of attacks on black kids. Those attacks were not seriously prosecuted. They were - one guy was charged with a misdemeanor, another guy wasn't charged of anything at all.

And so it led to the perception that this town, over the course of several months starting with that noose incident, was basically letting white people slide for their offenses against blacks, but coming down hard against blacks. That's the perception of civil rights leaders, that's certainly the perception that brought 20,000 or more people to Jena to protest there last month.

And that's what's kind of at the heart of the case. But a few - I've not heard anyone who says that the black kids should be, you know, not be punished for having assaulted this white kid because they did assault him, you know, at least some of them did. It's a question as to who exactly was involved.

CONAN: Hmm. Thank you, Scott.

SCOTT: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Thelma on the line. Thelma is calling us from Tennessee.

Hello? Thelma, are you there?

THELMA (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

THELMA: I have two things to say. One is that for how long are we - it's certainly is a white and black issue. But looking from outside, it seems like it's punishable no matter what. We have made enough excuses for our young. Our prisons are getting full of young juveniles who didn't - don't take responsibility for their actions. And the parents failed to parent them to do that.

And they addressing about symbols. Yes, symbols are very strong message. You know, the cross is used, and everybody have their religious symbol and their hate symbol and all that.

The one thing that disturbs me very much is very often, swastika is used. For lots of millions of Hindus living in India and away from India, swastika is still used as a religious symbol - if somebody comes to mind, whom they will find swastika used in a positive way. But the news media, the radio, everybody fails to mention it. It's all these compared with all other symbols as a hate symbol. Just because one person used it and distorted it does not mean that it is a hate symbol.

I think it is a responsibility of the news media to never to mention swastika. You need to mention that it is a perfectly peaceful - it has a very good message. One mind - one person with a twisted mind used it out for his message as a hate symbol.

CONAN: Well, it got distorted by the millions of others who followed that man and used it as a symbol of hatred and is now perceived, in most places around the world, Thelma, as a symbol of hatred. And you're right. It certainly is a symbol in Indian religious ceremonies that means something completely different. But in the Western context, regrettably, it's seen in a different context altogether.

Howard Witt - and I know you've been back to Jena - how do you think this event and particularly the protest you mentioned last month, how has that changed the town, do you think?

Mr. WITT: Well, you know, it's an excellent question and it also goes to the heart of what Dr. Ogletree was talking about earlier. Everyone keeps talking about wanting reconciliation in this town. But, you know, certainly at this point, there's just not much sign of that. The - most of the white folks that you talk to in that town continue to be very angry that they say they're town is being portrayed as racist. They don't understand what all the furor is all about. They still don't agree that the nooses represent any kind of an offense to black people. And, in fact, you even had the mayor of the town a couple of weeks ago giving an interview to a white supremacist, you know, after declining to talk to the mainstream media.

I mean, so there's just - there's a lot of communication disconnects and profoundly different perceptions in Jena. And how that town is going to bridge that divide will be very interesting to see how it goes forward because it is, in many ways, a microcosm of the nation, and a lot of small towns in the nation. This is not just a Jena problem.

CONAN: Howard Witt, thanks so much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Howard Witt is a senior correspondent for the Chicago Tribune based in Houston, Texas. He broke the Jena Six story, and he joined us today from a hotel room here in Washington, D.C.

Coming up, the amazing run of the Colorado Rockies.

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