Judge steps out of Jena Six media case

Published 10:56 pm Tuesday, October 30, 2007

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A judge has disqualified himself from hearing a request from news media to open juvenile court proceedings for a black teenager charged with beating a white classmate in Jena, a case that has drawn thousands of protesters.

Following state District Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr.’s recusal, the Louisiana Supreme Court on Tuesday assigned fellow state District Judge Thomas Yeager to decide whether the case against 17-year-old Mychal Bell should be open to the public.

Yeager, who sits in the central Louisiana city of Alexandria, said he set a tentative court date of Nov. 21 to hear the petition filed by The Associated Press and more than two dozen newspapers, television networks and network affiliates.

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The news organizations are seeking permission to attend new hearings in Bell’s case, to review transcripts of previous hearings and other court records, and to lift a gag order against participants in the case.

Bell, 17, originally was charged with attempted murder for his alleged role in a December 2006 attack on Justin Barker at Jena High School. That charge was reduced before a jury convicted him in June of aggravated second-degree battery. Mauffray presided over the trial.

The charges against Bell and five others — the so-called ‘‘Jena Six’’ — sparked a huge civil-rights demonstration in Jena last month. Critics accused District Attorney Reed Walters of treating blacks more harshly than whites, because his office didn’t file charges against three white teens accused of hanging nooses in a tree at the high school shortly before the attack on Barker.

In September, a state appeals court vacated Bell’s conviction and ruled that he shouldn’t have been tried as an adult. Bell is due in juvenile court early next month — also before Mauffray — and has a tentative trial date of Dec. 6.

In a one-page ruling, Mauffray indicated he recused himself because he was named as a defendant in the news media’s litigation. Mauffray is the only judge assigned to the Lasalle Parish court where Bell’s case is being heard. Dan Zimmerman, an attorney for the news organizations, said the judge would have been in a ‘‘difficult position’’ if he had to review his own decision.

Criminal cases involving juveniles in Louisiana are usually sealed, but lawyers for the news organizations argue that aggravated second-degree battery is one of the violent offenses that allows a juvenile court case to be opened to the public.

Five other students were charged with the attack on Barker, who was knocked unconscious.

Charges against three other teens — Robert Bailey Jr., 18; Carwin Jones, 19; and Theo Shaw, 18 — also have been reduced from attempted murder to aggravated second-degree battery. Bryant Purvis, 18, has not yet been arraigned, and a sixth suspect was charged as a juvenile.

In addition to The Associated Press, news organizations seeking to open Bell’s case are The New York Times; USA Today; the Chicago Tribune; the Los Angeles Times; the Houston Chronicle; the San Antonio Express-News; The Beaumont Enterprise; The Dallas Morning News; CNN; ABC News; WDSU-TV and WWL-TV in New Orleans; WAPT-TV in Jackson, Miss.; WFAA-TV in Dallas; KHOU-TV in Houston; KVUE-TV in Austin, Texas; KENS-TV in San Antonio; The (Houma) Courier; The (Thibodaux) Daily Comet; The (Alexandria) Town Talk; The (Monroe) News-Star; The (Shreveport) Times; The (Lafayette) Daily Advertiser and The (Opelousas) Daily World.