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Published: Tuesday, 9/25/2007

Poisoning the well of justice

ONCE there was a tree near Jena High School in Jena, La., that became the exclusive meeting place for white students.

Last year, a black student made inquiries about sitting under the tree. He wanted to experience the shade too. The principal said it was OK. After all, the tree was for everyone's enjoyment.

Some white students were upset by the end of their racial monopoly. Hangman's nooses soon appeared on the tree and, of course, nothing screams racism quite like nooses hanging from a tree in Louisiana.

The principal wanted to expel the boys for ethnic intimidation, but the school superintendent called it a prank. The boys were given a few days' suspension instead. It sent the wrong signal to the student body.

Fights broke out between black and white students. A white kid assaulted a black kid with a bottle and was charged with a misdemeanor and released on probation. Later, six black students jumped a white student and beat him badly enough to send him to the hospital for a few hours. Other than a black eye and bruises, he was OK.

As for the six boys who jumped him, they were charged with attempted second-degree murder. Bail was set astronomically high for the low-income defendants. The difference in the treatment of black and white students before the law incensed the community.

African-American bloggers and black talk-radio spread the word about the inequities in Jena. As the story entered the mainstream, the charges against the Jena 6 were reduced to battery.

All of the boys except Mychal Bell are now free on bail. Mr. Bell, who was convicted of battery as an adult, although he was 16 at the time, has yet to be sentenced. Recently, his charges were vacated by an appeals court, but District Attorney Reed Walters still stands between Mr. Bell and freedom. He was refused release by a juvenile court judge on Friday.

Is it necessary that defendants be saints before they are afforded equal treatment before the law? The so-called Jena 6 committed a crime by assaulting their classmate. They deserve some punishment but the original murder charges were excessive and poisoned the well of justice.

The assaults by white students in Jena were not treated as severely, suggesting two standards of justice that are untenable in a small town - or any town in America.

Had more attention been paid to the problem before it had a chance to fester, and had justice been more evenhanded, the town's reputation would not today be under assault.

Unfortunately, Jena is a snapshot of inequalities that can and do occur in the criminal-justice system across America. What happened there could happen in Miami, Chicago, or even in Toledo.

Once there was a tree in front of Jena High School, but it was cut down. Nobody can sit in its refreshing shade now.



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