Legal proceedings against a black teenager among a group whose prosecution in the beating of a white classmate led to a massive civil rights protest must be open to the public, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Because the charges involve violence, all proceedings against Mychal Bell — including hearings, the trial and sentencing — will be public even though Bell is being tried as a juvenile, state District Judge Thomas Yeager decided.
"We need to have public trials so the public has confidence in what we do," Yeager said during a hearing in a lawsuit filed by media organizations covering the so-called Jena Six.
The district judge presiding over Bell's trial, J.P. Mauffray, agreed last week to open the trial but insisted on keeping media and the public out of the hearings leading up to it. Yeager handled the media lawsuit since Mauffray is a defendant in it.
Bell, 17, faces trial Dec. 6 on charges of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy in an attack last December on Justin Barker, a white student at Jena High School. Barker spent several hours in the emergency room but attended a school event later in the day.
Bell originally was charged as an adult with attempted murder. That charge was reduced before a jury convicted him in June of aggravated second-degree battery. In September that verdict was thrown out and Bell was ordered tried as a juvenile.
The charges against Bell and five others sparked a huge civil rights demonstration in Jena in September. Critics accused prosecutor Reed Walters of treating blacks more harshly than whites, because his office didn't file charges against three white teens accused of hanging nooses in a tree at the high school shortly before the attack on Barker.
Walters maintained that state law blocked him from charging anyone over the nooses.
'A victory for the media'
The Associated Press and 24 other news organizations went to court for permission to attend hearings in Bell's case, and to review transcripts of previous hearings and other court records in the central Louisiana case.
"This is a victory for the media and for the public and for a citizen's right to know what is going on," said Mary Ellen Roy, an attorney for the media.
Yeager denied an argument by Don Wilson, a lawyer for Mauffray, that Yeager did not have the right to rule against another judge of equal standing. Yeager said a higher court should decide that question.
In addition to The Associated Press, news organizations that sought to open Bell's case were The New York Times; USA Today; the Chicago Tribune; the Los Angeles Times; the Houston Chronicle; the San Antonio Express-News; The Beaumont Enterprise; The Dallas Morning News; CNN; ABC News; WDSU-TV and WWL-TV in New Orleans; WAPT-TV in Jackson, Miss.; WFAA-TV in Dallas; KHOU-TV in Houston; KVUE-TV in Austin, Texas; KENS-TV in San Antonio; The (Houma) Courier; The (Thibodaux) Daily Comet; The (Alexandria) Town Talk; The (Monroe) News-Star; The (Shreveport) Times; The (Lafayette) Daily Advertiser and The (Opelousas) Daily World.