Martin Luther King III, the oldest son of the famed civil rights leader, urged a crowd Tuesday night to use the ballot box to change a local justice system where six black teenagers face the possibility of decades in prison for attacking a white classmate.
King spoke at what was billed as a town hall meeting to back the teens labeled by supporters as the “Jena Six.” He chastised the mostly black audience for failing to vote.
“We have to come together, white folks and black folks, and elect a new district attorney if it’s found that he has misappropriated power,” King said.
The youths were charged with attempted second-degree murder and conspiracy, sparking outrage in the black community, drawing attention from the American Civil Liberties Union, which is now monitoring the case, and civil rights leaders.
Mychal Bell, who was 16 at the time of the assault, was tried as an adult and convicted of reduced charges of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. He remains in jail, unable to raise a $90,000 bond. He faces up to 22 years in prison when sentenced on Sept. 20.
The other five are awaiting trial on the original charges
District Attorney Reed Walters, who has refused to talk to the media about the case, did not return a call for comment left at his residential number late Tuesday. In the past, he has said he cannot comment because of the pending charges.
King said that if blacks, who make up only 12 percent of the population in LaSalle Parish, voted at 95 percent, they would find the electoral muscle to make changes.
King appeared with the Rev. Al Sharpton, who was making his second appearance in Jena in support of the teenagers. He called the case “a national disgrace.”
“Any time you have two levels of justice in any court system, it undermines everything,” Sharpton said.
About 150 people, including a few white residents, jammed into tiny Antioch Baptist Church, taking all the space inside and spilling out onto the lawn.
Before the meeting, Sharpton and King met with Bell at the parish jail.
Two new defense attorneys for Bell Louis Scott and Carol Powell-Lexing said they planned a motion for a new trial, contending that Bell should have be tried as a juvenile and the trial should have been moved to another parish.
The attorneys also said they would ask for Bell’s release on a reduced bond while he appeals his conviction.
Jena, a town of 3,000, is mostly white with about 350 black residents. Residents said race relations had been sensitive though not explosive until incidents began unfolding last fall at Jena High School.
The morning after a black student sat under a tree on campus where white students traditionally congregated, three nooses lynching symbols in the old South were hung in the tree. Students accused of placing them were suspended from the school for a short period, but tensions increased. Fights between black and white students were reported on and off campus.
Then on Dec. 4, the six black students were accused of jumping Justin Barker, 18, who is white, and beating and kicking him at the high school.
Barker was treated at a hospital emergency room and went to a school function the same night. Bell, a star football player who was being courted by UCLA and Louisiana State University, was found guilty by an all-white jury.
Trial dates for Robert Bailey Jr., Bryant Purvis, Carwin Jones and Theodore Shaw, all 18, and an unidentified juvenile have not been set.
– Associated Press
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