A lawyer representing one of Louisiana's Jena Six sparked an impassioned dialogue about civil rights and criminal justice at N.C. Central University last week. State NAACP President the Rev. Dr. William Barber and NCCU law professor Irving Joyner drew parallels from Jena to the cases of two black men from North Carolina who spent years behind bars for crimes that evidence shows they did not commit.
"If it could happen in Wilson, it could happen in Durham. If it could happen in Anson County, it could happen in Durham. Even if it happens in Jena, La., it could happen in Durham. We are inexplicably linked, whether we are here or there," Joyner told an enthusiastic, standing-room-only audience.
Last month, 20,000 protesters—including dozens of Central law students—descended on the tiny town of Jena, La., to protest racial bias in the erstwhile charges of attempted murder against six black teenagers known as the Jena Six. One of those teenagers, Mychal Bell, was convicted in June of aggravated battery and conspiracy for his alleged role in the December 2006 schoolyard beating of a white student suspected of hanging nooses in Jena High School's "White Tree."
Louis Scott, Bell's attorney, helped overturn the adult charges against his client, because Bell was 16 at the time of the beating. However, the teen has spent only two weeks out of jail this year. Earlier this month, after he was released on bond, Bell was sent to a juvenile detention center for unrelated probation charges, all but one of which surfaced since his Jena Six arrest in December, according to Scott.
"You can see the viciousness of the local prosecutor [Reed Walters], who has contrived a way to get Mychal Bell back in jail, after Scott was successful in getting his release—and that was due in large part to many of you who went down to Jena, to commemorate everyone who had forgotten about Jena, except for you," Joyner said.
Scott compared Jena's "White Tree"—which bore nooses shortly after a black student asked at a 2006 school assembly if black students could sit under it—to the U.S. Constitution.
"Do we all have the right to share in the same rights and privileges as other Americans? It's as simple as that. It's a 1957 civil rights issue—in 2007," he said.
Barber then told the story of James Johnson, a 21-year-old from Wilson, who was recently released on bail after serving three-and-a-half years awaiting trial for murder. Kenneth Meeks, a convicted murderer, admitted in open court that he falsely accused Johnson of committing the crime as payback for Johnson turning him in to authorities.
"Everyone believed—except for a rogue assistant prosecutor [William Wolfe] in Wilson—that James was innocent of that crime," Barber said.
"The problem is, we have a system, from the White House to the courthouse, that does not know how to repent—which is a theological and a legal term," he added.
On Oct. 9, Durham County Superior Judge Orlando Hudson dismissed all charges against Floyd Brown, a mentally retarded man from Anson County who spent 14 years in prison awaiting trial for murder. Brown's attorneys, Kelley DeAngelous and Mike Klinkosum, attended Thursday's panel.
Solomon Burnette, one of several law students to speak passionately before the panel, called these incidents "pandemic and systemic."
"My blood is boiling with these incidents, and it's been boiling for awhile. These are not isolated incidents," law student Denaro Allen added.
"We're in a position where we can strategically fight. We can fight in the courtroom. We can fight the system and change the system, because that's what our predecessors did," he said.