HOUSTON -- An all-white jury in the central Louisiana town of Jena swiftly convicted a black teenager Thursday for attacking a white student in an incident that capped months of racial unrest and attracted the scrutiny of civil rights leaders concerned about the application of justice in the town.
Jurors convicted Mychal Bell, 17, of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy charges despite conflicting testimony from witnesses about whether Bell was among a group of black students who allegedly jumped the victim as he emerged from the gymnasium at the local high school on Dec. 4, knocking him unconscious.
Bell, a former high school football star who has been jailed since the incident, faces the possibility of more than 20 years in prison when he is sentenced July 31.
The attack followed an unsolved arson that destroyed the central wing of the school and a series of fights between whites and blacks that was triggered after three white students hung nooses from a tree on the campus in a threat aimed at blacks.
School administrators in the mostly white town of 3,000 said they regarded the noose incident as a youthful prank and handed brief suspensions to the students involved. That decision angered African-American students and their parents, who had demanded the white students' expulsion for what they saw as a hate crime.
Blacks' anger deepened when the local district attorney, Reed Walters, initially charged Bell and five other black teenagers with attempted murder in the December attack on the white student. The victim did not require hospitalization, prompting black leaders to protest that the charges were out of proportion to the crime.
But on Monday, following a May 20 Tribune report about the case, Walters reduced the charges against Bell, the first of the accused to go to trial. Walters has not revealed his plans regarding the other defendants, one of whom is being prosecuted as a juvenile.
The aggravated battery charge against Bell involved the use of a dangerous weapon. Although no evidence of a gun, knife or other weapon was introduced, Walters argued, and the jury agreed, that the tennis shoes Bell was wearing at the time of the attack qualified as a dangerous weapon.
There were inconsistencies in the testimony of prosecution witnesses. Some said they saw Bell strike the victim in the face during a melee outside the gym, others said Bell struck the victim in the back, while still others said they were not sure Bell was involved.
Bell's court-appointed public defender, Blane Williams, had urged the teenager to accept a plea bargain on the eve of the trial, but Bell declined. Williams, who is black, did not challenge the composition of the jury pool, which included no African-Americans, and the defense rested without calling any witnesses. He also excluded the teenager's parents from the courtroom.
"Blane Williams did not want to go to trial, he was not prepared to go to trial and he was angry when he was forced to go to trial," said Alan Bean, director of Friends of Justice, a Texas-based civil rights group that has closely followed the Jena case. "So he just sort of plowed ahead and decided to go through the motions."
Williams did not return calls seeking comment about his handling of the case.
"The appellate court now gets a chance to set this right," Williams told The Associated Press after the verdict.
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