Jena Six defendant Bryant Purvis pleaded not guilty to reduced charges of aggravated second-degree battery in his arraignment before the LaSalle Parish Court in Jena, La., Nov. 7.
Trials of the six youth were expected to begin this month but are likely to be delayed by a series of defense motions. Purvis’ trial is set for next March 24.
Purvis returned to Jena for the court hearing from the Dallas area where he is a senior in high school and on the varsity basketball team. He was the last of the six African American teenagers to file not guilty pleas. Prosecutor Reed Walters dropped attempted murder charges that could have resulted in a 100-year sentence against Purvis. But the youth’s mother, Tina Jones, pointed out that if found guilty, her son could still spend 22 years in prison, “nothing to smile about.”
Charges against the other five youths have also been reduced. The charges stem from a Dec. 4, 2006, incident in which the six Black youths allegedly assaulted a white classmate, Justin Barker, knocking him unconscious. Nevertheless, Barker went to a school social event that same evening.
Ignored by Walters is that Robert Bailey Jr., one of the Jena Six, had been beaten up by a white man with fists and a beer bottle when he attended a dance at Jena High. Later Barker taunted Bailey for “getting your ass whipped.”
Also ignored by Walters is the racist backlash when African American students sat under the “white tree” on the high school lawn. The next morning three nooses were found hanging from the tree. These hate crimes were met with a slap on the wrist, while the Black students had the book thrown at them. Walters even told Black students during a high school assembly he could terminate their lives “with a stroke of my pen.”
Alan Bean, director of Dallas-based Friends of Justice, was in the courtroom Nov. 7. “I think the arraignment of Purvis was an admission of failure by the prosecutor,” he told the World. “I have always believed the evidence against him was so weak that the prosecutor’s real aim was to pressure Purvis to turn state’s evidence.”
Last January, Bean said, “I met with Bryant and he told me he was too far from the action to tell what was going on. That is what he continues to assert. I don’t think he has anything to give the state.”
Bean said the Jena Six legal defense team has filed a string of motions demanding that Walters and Judge J.P. Mauffray recuse themselves from all trials of the six youth. “If these recusal motions are ever argued in an open hearing,” Bean said, “the public will begin to understand why it is so important to have Walters and Mauffray removed, and why it is so important to have these cases tried before a racially diverse jury, something that can’t happen in LaSalle Parish.”
Only one of the defendants has been tried, Mychal Bell, and that trial was before an all-white jury. He was found guilty, but the Louisiana Appeals Court overturned both convictions on grounds he was improperly tried as an adult.
Bell, 17, spent 10 months in prison during the trial. He was briefly freed when the civil rights movement raised over $90,000 to pay his bail, much of it during the Sept. 20 demonstration that brought an estimated 50,000 protesters to Jena. Later, the court ordered the re-arrest of Bell for an unrelated parole violation and he is now incarcerated in a juvenile detention facility.
“The consensus nationally is that there is unequal justice in these cases,” Bean said. “September 20 was such a massive undertaking, there may be some fatigue. These fights in the criminal justice system are marathons, not sprints. People need to continue to protest. The Jena Six case is not an isolated case. We must relate what is happening to the Jena Six to other cases of over-prosecution and hate crimes against people of color across the country.”