A First-Hand Account of the Jena 6 Case by Terry Davis, Investigator for Mychal Bell

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The following is a talk
given by Terry Davis,
investigator with the
legal defense team for
Mychal Bell, one of the
members of the Jena 6
on trial in Louisiana. Davis was in Jena for
three weeks and was present for the historic
march there on Sept. 20. She gave a
talk in Champaign-Urbana on October 12,
2007 at the Urban League.

WHAT I WANT TO DO in talking with you
tonight is to share with you the particularly
unique and gripping story of Jena. I
don’t think this story became world
famous by accident. There’s something
about it that just grabs at the heart and I
think that made it big, even though there
are things like what have been happening
to the Jena six, unfortunately, way too
much and in way too many places.
I do work with the public defender’s office
in Chicago. I had some training and experience
that I thought may be helpful for one or
any of the Jena 6 kids with their legal case.
I read in the paper about this amazing
series of incidents that took place in Jena
starting when a black student in the high
school asked the principal if the black kids
were allowed to sit under the white tree,
that is the tree in the school yard where
some of the white kids gathered. Historically
no black kids had sat there. He said
they could. And this young man, Ken
Purvis, and a few of his friends, without
any fanfare, just went one lunch period
and sat there. The next day when the students
came to school there were three
nooses hanging in the very same tree.
Everything you’ve heard, it may be true.
But there is so much more that makes it so
much worse than you even know. For
example, the white kids that usually sat
under the tree in the morning, I guess a lot
of them instinctively pulled back and didn’t
sit down, but somehow they knew they didn’t
want to sit under those nooses. There
were teachers standing around laughing in
the morning. One of the kids went and told
the principal there’s nooses in the tree, and
he said, “Oh, ha, ha, ha. It’s just a prank.”
When the kids went to their first period
class, those nooses were still there. They did
take them down then. But it was a sign, I
think, to the kids that it really didn’t matter.
People in the South, black and white, I
think have much stronger sense of history
in a way than people in Illinois—for better
and for worse. I don’t think there was anyone
in that school yard that didn’t know
what the nooses meant. To the black kids,
a lot of whom I interviewed in the course
of my work, it was a horrible shock that
their school mates wanted to say something
that violent and ugly to them.
You’ve probably heard how the principal
initially wanted to expel the kids who put up
the nooses, and then the school board overrode
his decision and made it into a minor
offense rather than a major offense. Then
began a very tense Fall. I don’t think you can
understand this case without picturing the
tension that existed among the kids from
that point on. The day of the nooses just
about every black student in the high school,
spontaneously, they went at lunchtime and
sat under the tree. I don’t know if they
thought they were having a sit-in, but that
was what they were doing anyway.
The response by the powers-that-be was
immediate and they had a lock-down at the
school. They had a heavy police presence at
the school, including dogs, following this.
The District Attorney, who wears at least two
hats in Jena, one of which is attorney for the
school board, came to a school assembly of
the kids and looking right at the black kids
he said, “I can take away your life with the
stroke of my pen.” There is not one student
who was in that room who doesn’t remember
that like it’s emblazoned on their mind.
The kids I talked to largely felt that their
needs and concerns were being overlooked
completely. There were fights, there was
tension, there was race-baiting, name-calling
going on during the Fall. After Thanksgiving
there was a series of incidents that
culminated in the incident for which the
Jena 6 were arrested.
Before I came to Jena I read the transcript of
the first of the Jena 6 to go to trial, and he was
my client Mychal Bell. It was a stunning
experience just to read the transcript. I doubt
that all of you are lawyers, but I bet even the
youngest people here know that you’re supposed
to be impartial in order to serve on a
jury. We had potential jurors being questioned,
“Do you know anything about this
case?” They would respond, “Only what I’ve
read in the papers.” The papers in Jena had
vitriolic attacks on the Jena 6 every day—day
in, day out—just wild attacks on these kids.
This one woman juror was asked, “Do you
think you can be fair?” She said, “No, not
really.” She was seated.
The jury was all white. The Defense
Attorney was a court-appointed lawyer
who seemed to feel the weight of the case
enough that he didn’t want to stick his neck
out too far. He didn’t call a single witness.
I found out after reading the transcript
that there was one teacher, and only one
teacher, who actually saw the beginning of
the fight. The others arrived seconds later,
but they didn’t see it start. Mychal Bell was
accused of throwing that first punch that
knocked Justin out temporarily and caused
him to fall. And then he was kicked. But the
punch, that was Mychal’s contribution to the
situation, according to the prosecution.
There was a teacher who happened to be
coming in front of where Justin was heading,
so he was able to see it uniquely well. He
made a written statement which he turned
into the principal that very same day saying
that he saw who threw the punch. Guess
what, it wasn’t Mychal Bell, it was another
kid. He was not called as a witness. He had
moved to another town. Nobody knew
where he had gone. I found that coach. He
said it was somebody else and he said a lot of
other things that were very important. But he
was never called as a witness, even though
his statement was in there before the trial.
Jena is very, very small. There’s no movie
theater. There’s four stop lights. Nowhere to
eat. One motel. Within it the black community
is very small, maybe fifteen percent.
This is a very isolated black community
with no economic power, no political
power. The black people have been gerrymandered
out of Jena so they can’t even
vote for Mayor because they are just on the
other side of the city line. There’s very few
jobs. There’s no black people in the library,
in the city clerk’s office. There’s one black
person who works in the bank, but he
works in a room where he cannot be seen.
In some ways it is a throw back to years
ago—but is it? Is this a throw back to years
ago, or is it that you don’t see it unless it’s
pushed right up against your face?
For a full transcript of this speech go to

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