JENA, La. – Prosecutors reduced charges against a black high school student a day before he went on trial Tuesday in the beating of a white student amid escalating racial tensions.
Mychale Bell and four other black students faced up to 80 years if convicted of attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the December beating, which occurred several months after three white students were suspended for hanging nooses from a schoolyard tree.
But the district attorney on Monday reduced Bell's charges to aggravated second-degree battery, which carries a sentence of up to 15 years, and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery, which carries a maximum sentence of 7 1/2 years.
Selection of a six-member jury began Tuesday morning. Jurors were being drawn from LaSalle Parish, which U.S. Census figures show has a black population of about 12 percent. Several dozen potential jurors were seated in the courtroom for questioning. There were no black faces visible among them.
Court administrator Bobby Wilson said 150 people were summoned for the jury pool. About 100 showed up and Wilson was uncertain how many, if any blacks, were among them.
Aggravated second-degree battery involves use of a dangerous weapon, according to state statutes. Parents of the accused say they had heard no previous mention of a weapon.
"Well, anything is better than murder and a lifetime in prison," said John Jenkins, whose son, Carwin Jones, is among the charged. "But it's still strange. All of a sudden they're talking about a weapon. What weapon? We never heard anything about a weapon before."
There was no word Monday if the charges would be reduced for the other defendants, who will be tried later. Prosecutors refused to discuss the case.
The five defendants and a juvenile, whose identity and charges were not released because of his age, were dubbed the "Jena Six" by supporters who say the attempted murder charges resulted from racism by authorities and were out of proportion to the seriousness of the crime.
The racial tension began in August in Jena — a central Louisiana town of 2,900 with about 350 black residents — after a black student sat under a tree traditionally used as a gathering spot by white students. The next month, three nooses were hanging in the tree when students arrived on campus.
"You didn't see the district attorney rush out to school to do anything about those nooses in the tree," said Caseptla Bailey, whose son, Robert Bailey Jr., also was charged in the beating. "You don't see white kids who beat up black kids charged with attempted murder. There's nothing fair going on here."
The school's principal recommended the students who hung the nooses be expelled, but they served brief suspensions instead.
On Dec. 4, Justin Barker, who is white, was attacked at school by a small group of black students. He was treated at a hospital.
"I saw him that night at school for the ring ceremony," Jenkins said. "I could tell he had been beat up, his face was bruised, but he was out and about, so he couldn't have been too bad."
Theodore Shaw also had been scheduled to go to trial this week, but his case was delayed. Trial dates for the others — Bryant Purvis, Bailey, Jones and the unidentified juvenile — have not been set.
Shaw and Bell have been held since their arrests, unable to post $90,000 bond.