Thursday, September 27, 2007

Jena 6: The Prosecutor Speaks

Via Ann Althouse, this New York Times op-ed by the much-maligned Jena 6 prosecutor, Reed Walters. All-in-all, he gives a pretty good account of himself, emphasizing some points that have been getting lost. Most importantly, he makes short work of something I've taken issue with myself: the characterization of the case as being about a "schoolyard fight."

Conjure the image of schoolboys fighting: they exchange words, clench fists, throw punches, wrestle in the dirt until classmates or teachers pull them apart. Of course that would not be aggravated second-degree battery, which is what the attackers are now charged with. (Five of the defendants were originally charged with attempted second-degree murder.) But that’s not what happened at Jena High School.

The victim in this crime, who has been all but forgotten amid the focus on the defendants, was a young man named Justin Barker, who was not involved in the nooses incident three months earlier. According to all the credible evidence I am aware of, after lunch, he walked to his next class. As he passed through the gymnasium door to the outside, he was blindsided and knocked unconscious by a vicious blow to the head thrown by Mychal Bell. While lying on the ground unaware of what was happening to him, he was brutally kicked by at least six people.

Imagine you were walking down a city street, and someone leapt from behind a tree and hit you so hard that you fell to the sidewalk unconscious. Would you later describe that as a fight?

Only the intervention of an uninvolved student protected Mr. Barker from severe injury or death. There was serious bodily harm inflicted with a dangerous weapon — the definition of aggravated second-degree battery. Mr. Bell’s conviction on that charge as an adult has been overturned, but I considered adult status appropriate because of his role as the instigator of the attack, the seriousness of the charge and his prior criminal record.

Precisely. The defenders of the Jena 6 keep using that term because of the image it creates: two young men engaged in equal combat. I'm actually probably a bit more indulgent of the classic schoolyard fight than most school officials these days. But youthful fisticuffs used to be governed by a code of honor, and the Jena 6 attackers don't know the meaning of the word.

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