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Old-Fashioned Southern Justice in the Modern South

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As you go about your day, think about Mychal Bell, the 17-year-old, who is to find out his fate today in a Jena, Louisiana court. Bell, part of the "Jena 6," faces what can be best described as injustice run amok.

Jena, whose population is roughly 3,000, has garnered national attention after Bell was convicted, facing 22 years in prison for his part in a racially motivated altercation at the local high school. Bell, 16 when the incident occurred, had been tried as an adult.

Last week, Bell had a portion of his charges dropped. Judge J.P. Mauffray threw out a conspiracy conviction against Mychal Bell, granting a defense motion that Bell's June trial was improperly held in adult court and should instead have been conducted as a juvenile proceeding.

But Mauffray let stand Bell's conviction on aggravated second-degree battery, for which still faces up to 15 years in prison. The good news for Bell is the possibility of his maximum sentence has been reduced by seven years. The bad news he still faces sentencing today.

After a two-day trial, in which Bell's public defender called no witnesses, the all-white jury originally found him guilty of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery for his role in the beating of a white male classmate who participated in last year's racial incident. The victim spent roughly one hour in a local hospital.

Bell and five of his fellow African American high school students, ranging from 15 to 17 years of age, are facing lifetimes behind bars for a schoolyard fight incident. In total, these young men could be sentenced to up to 100 years in prison, with charges of attempted murder.

Bails were set from $70,000 to $138,000; and coming from low-income families has resulted in these six young men languishing behind bars when the should be enjoying their final years of adolescents.

This case centers on a tree. Not just any tree, but a tree at the high school, known as the "white tree," which was symbolically labeled for white students only.

According to reports, an African American student, new to the area, asked permission from school administrators to sit under the infamous tree. Permission was granted, and the next day three nooses, draped in the school's colors, were hanging from the tree.

The school's principal recommended expulsion for the three white students responsible. The school superintendent overruled the expulsion and gave the students a three-day suspension for "an adolescent prank."

A school prank, perhaps. I am more accustomed to rolls of toilet paper on someone's house or car, I would like to think reasonable people could agree that a hung noose on a tree crosses the line of acceptability.

The barbaric legacy of legally sanctioned injustice that courses through the veins of every African American, in particularly those living in the South, makes the nooses hung from the school tree echo with the melodic sounds of Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit."

It is a haunting reminder of a less favorable moment in 20th century American history when black people were lynched on average every three days spanning over a 25-year period.

Thousands from all over the country have descended on Jena in support of these six young men. Their glaring absurdity, however, is but the tip of the iceberg that reaches several fathoms below the surface of justice.

According to the Urban League:

• America presently incarcerates more than 10,000 youth in adult prisons.

• African American men are three times more likely than white men to face jail once they have been arrested in the United States.

• 24.4 percent of African Americans arrested in 2005 ended up in jail, compared with 8.3 percent of white men.

• African American men receive jail sentences on average 15 percent longer than white men convicted of the same crime.

The "Jena 6" case serves as a microcosm of the Urban League's findings. Instead of calling them the "Jena 6" perhaps the "American 6" would be more appropriate.

I know justice is blind but you would think she could see the injustice in this case from miles away.

Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. E-mail him at byron@byronspeaks.com or leave a message at 510-208-6417.

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