A state appeals court Friday tossed out the aggravated battery conviction that could have sent a black teenager to prison for 15 years in last year's beating of a white classmate in the racially tense Louisiana town of Jena.
Mychal Bell, who was 16 at the time of the December beating, should not have been tried as an adult on the battery charge, the state Third Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles ruled.
Bell is one of six black Jena High School students charged in an attack on fellow student Justin Barker, and one of five originally charged as adults with attempted second-degree murder.
The charges brought widespread criticism that blacks were being treated more harshly than whites after racial confrontations and fights at their school.
Attorney Louis Scott of Monroe said he didn't know whether Bell, whose bond was set at $90,000, would get out of jail immediately.
"It means that at the present time all charges are dismissed," Scott said. "But we don't know what approach the prosecution is going to take — whether they will re-charge him, where he would have to be subjected to bail all over again or not.
"We're working on that right now," he said.
Rally for 'Jena Six' planned
Bell was to be sentenced Thursday in a case that has brought international attention to Jena. Civil rights leaders, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, have been planning a rally in support of the teens that day.
"Although there will not be a court hearing, we still intend to have a major rally for the Jena Six and now hopefully Mychal Bell will join us," Sharpton said in an e-mailed statement.
"Mychal Bell's parents will still join me in Chicago tomorrow and we will still continue mobilization on this miscarriage of justice."
Jackson said, "The pressure must continue until all six boys are set free and sent to school, not to jail."
Racial tensions flared after nooses
Jena is a mostly white town where racial animosity flared about a year ago when a black student sat under a tree that was a traditional gathering place for whites.
A day later, three nooses were found hanging from the tree, evoking for some the image of lynchings in the old South. There followed reports of racial fights and confrontations at the school, culminating in the December attack on Barker.
The reversal of Bell's conviction will not affect four other teenagers also charged as adults, because they were 17 years old at the time of the fight and, legally, no longer juveniles in Louisiana, said attorney George Tucker of Hammond.
Bell was 16 at the time of the fight, making him a juvenile under Louisiana law.
Tucker, who represented one of teens — Theo Shaw — until Friday, said the boy whose case is in juvenile court will benefit, and Bell will be tried by a judge in juvenile court.
Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr., who heard Bell's case, noted that the district attorney also could appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
District Attorney Reed Walters did not return a call asking his next step.
Details of ruling
Mauffray had thrown out a conspiracy conviction on which Bell was convicted, saying it was not a charge on which a juvenile may be tried as an adult. But he had let the battery conviction stand, saying Bell could be tried in adult court because the charge was among lesser charges included in the original attempted murder charge against him.
He was wrong, the Third Circuit ruled.
While teenagers can be tried as adults in Louisiana for some violent crimes, including attempted murder, aggravated battery is not one of those crimes. Defense lawyers had argued that the aggravated battery case should not have been tried in adult court once the attempted murder charge was reduced.
"The defendant was not tried on an offense which could have subjected him to the jurisdiction of the criminal court," the three-paragraph ruling said.
The case "remains exclusively in juvenile court," the Third Circuit ruled.