A white teenager allegedly beaten by black schoolmates in this small central Louisiana town told a jury Wednesday that he was hit from behind, knocked unconscious and never saw who attacked him.
Justin Barker, 17, testified that he had just come out of his high school gym with his girlfriend walking ahead of him on Dec. 4 when they turned to avoid a group of black students.
“I turned my back and somebody hit me, that’s all I remember,” Barker said.
Barker testified before an all-white jury in the trial of Mychale Bell, also 17, the first of six black teenagers arrested in the alleged beating. The case drew widespread attention when five of those arrested were charged with attempted murder and conspiracy counts carrying decades of prison time.
Nooses hanging from tree
The racial tensions leading to the fight began in August in Jena — a town of 2,900 with about 350 black residents — after a black student at Jena High School sat under a tree traditionally used as a gathering spot by white students. Later, three nooses were hanging in the tree when students arrived on campus.
The parents of the accused have said the charges were far out of proportion to the crime and were the result of racism. Without saying why, the LaSalle Parish district attorney reduced Bell’s charges from attempted second-degree murder on Monday.
Bell, who was 16 at the time of the beating, could still face more than 20 years in prison if convicted of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery.
'My client is innocent'
Defense attorney Blane Williams said there was a great deal of uncertainty and confusion surrounding the attack on Barker and there were likely some who took part in the attack who were not arrested. Without directly addressing Bell’s role, Williams said, “I think you’re going to find when this is over that my client is innocent of the charges against him.”
Ten white high school students appeared on the witness stand. Some said Bell was the one who struck Barker, others said they could not identify the person who knocked Barker down but that the attacker wore a green hooded jacket. The last of the 10, Jacob Hooter, said the person who struck Barker wore a red shirt. Hooter said Bell was present, but he did not see Bell hit or kick Barker.
Barker said he had a badly swollen face and temporary blindness in one eye that lasted three weeks. He also said he still suffers recurring headaches since the beating but, under cross examination, acknowledged that medical tests have found no cause.
District Attorney Reed Walters has refused to discuss details of the case and it is unclear whether charges against others will be reduced.