By Howard Witt Tribune senior correspondent
October 17, 2007
WASHINGTON - Under pointed questioning from Democratic House members who decried the lack of federal intervention in the racially charged Jena 6 case, U.S. Justice Department officials revealed Tuesday that they are weighing an investigation into allegations of systemic bias in the administration of justice in the small, mostly white Louisiana town of Jena.U.S. Atty. Donald Washington also said for the first time that the hanging of nooses from a shade tree in the Jena High School courtyard in September, 2006, by three white students -- a warning to stay away from the tree directed at black students that triggered months of interracial fights in the town -- constituted a federal hate crime. However, he said federal authorities opted not to prosecute the case because of the ages of the white youths involved.Jena school officials dismissed the noose incident as a youthful prank and issued brief suspensions to the white students involved, angering black residents of the town.
"Yes, hanging a noose under these circumstances is a hate crime," Washington, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, told a House Judiciary Committee hearing convened to examine the Jena case. "If these acts had been committed by others who were not juveniles, this would have been a federal hate crime, and we would have moved forward."But during the four-hour hearing, boycotted by most Republican members of the House panel, many African-American committee members said they remained dissatisfied with the reluctance of Justice Department officials to intervene more forcefully in what they regard as the excessive prosecution of six black Jena students for a Dec. 4 attack on a white student.The white student was knocked unconscious and treated and released at a hospital, but LaSalle Parish District Atty. Reed Walters initially charged the blacks with attempted murder. After outcry about the case, Walters reduced the charges.But Walters' refusal to charge other whites in the town who attacked blacks with similar crimes prompted national civil rights leaders, joined by more than 20,000 demonstrators who marched through Jena on Sept. 20, to assert that the town's justice system was biased."Shame on you!" Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) shouted at Washington. "Mr. Washington, tell me why you did not intervene. Six broken lives could have been prevented if you had taken action."'Child of the '60s' defends steps"I was also offended" by the noose incident, Washington replied. "I too am an African-American. I am a child of the '60s, of the desegregation era. ... But at the end of the day, there are only certain things that the United States attorney can do."Events surrounding the prosecution of the first of the Jena 6 defendants to go to trial, Mychal Bell, 17, have drawn scrutiny from civil rights leaders and members of Congress.Walters first prosecuted Bell as an adult on aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy charges in June. But a Louisiana appellate court vacated that conviction in September, ruling that Walters and LaSalle Parish District Judge J.P. Mauffray had improperly tried Bell as an adult.The appellate court then compelled Mauffray to release Bell, who had been jailed for nearly 10 months on the charges, on bail on Sept. 27. But two weeks later, Mauffray sent Bell back to jail, sentencing him to 18 months on four prior juvenile convictions for simple battery and criminal destruction of property."As we all know, it is illegal under the guarantees of our Constitution and our laws to have one standard of justice for white citizens and another, harsher one for African-American citizens," Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said in opening the hearing. "We come to this hearing inquiring as to how we can correct this situation in our nation."Several representatives and witnesses noted copycat noose incidents that have occurred in New York, Maryland, Louisiana and Illinois in recent weeks and suggested that they were proliferating because of inaction by the Justice Department in Jena."What happened in Jena is not isolated," Charles Ogletree Jr., a Harvard University law professor and civil rights expert, told the committee. "The fact is there is a cancer in Jena and we tried to treat it with aspirin and good wishes and hope. The reality is that it requires a radical solution."A Justice Department official told the hearing that conciliators from the department's civil rights division had visited Jena in recent months and that officials were considering whether further action is warranted."The Department of Justice is aware that there are requests to investigate the judicial system in Jena," Lisa Krigsten, an official of the civil rights division, told lawmakers. "At this time, the Justice Department is gathering information and reviewing that information and taking that request very seriously."Added Washington: "If we can prove that charging decisions [by Walters] were made in a racially discriminatory manner, that leads to the strong possibility that we can move forward."That is what happened in Jena, according to Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center.Did whites get 'a pass'?"In Jena, it seems as if black children were hammered and white children were given a pass or a slap on the wrist," Cohen said at Tuesday's hearing.Walters has denied in previous public statements that race was involved in his prosecution of the Jena 6. Conyers said he had invited Walters to testify but that the district attorney had declined.But another Jena resident did appear. Rev. Brian Moran, coordinator of the Jena branch of the NAACP, told House members that his town remains bitterly divided across racial lines."Throughout Jena's history, there have always been two systems of justice, one for blacks and one for whites," Moran said. "That is simply un-American, and we believe it is no longer acceptable."