Justice officials weigh probe of Jena 6 case

At hearing, Democrats on House panel decry lack of federal investigation

October 17, 2007|By Howard Witt | Howard Witt,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- Under pointed questioning from Democratic House members who decried the lack of federal intervention in the racially charged Jena 6 case, U.S. Justice Department officials revealed yesterday that they are weighing an investigation into allegations of systemic racial bias in the administration of justice in the small, mostly white Louisiana town.

U.S. Attorney Donald W. Washington also said for the first time that the hanging of nooses from a shade tree in the Jena High School courtyard in September 2006 by three white students - a warning directed at black students to stay away from the tree, which triggered interracial fights in the town - constituted a federal hate crime, but that federal authorities chose not to prosecute the case because of the ages of the white youths involved.

Jena school officials dismissed the noose incident as a prank and issued brief suspensions to the white students involved, angering black residents.

"Yes, hanging a noose under these circumstances is a hate crime," Washington, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, told a House Judiciary Committee hearing convened to examine the Jena case. "If these acts had been committed by others who were not juveniles, this would have been a federal hate crime, and we would have moved forward."

But during the four-hour hearing, boycotted by most Republican members of the House panel, many black committee members said they remained dissatisfied with the reluctance of Justice Department officials to intervene more forcefully in what they regard as the excessive prosecution of six black Jena students for a Dec. 4 attack on a white student.

The white student was briefly knocked unconscious and was treated at a local hospital, but Jena District Attorney Reed Walters initially charged the black students with attempted murder. After public outcry about the case mounted, Walters reduced the charges to aggravated second-degree battery.

But Walters' refusal to charge other whites in the town who attacked blacks with similar crimes prompted national civil rights leaders, joined by more than 20,000 demonstrators who marched through Jena on Sept. 20, to assert that the town's justice system was biased.

"Shame on you!" Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, a Texas Democrat, shouted at Washington, the first African-American to hold the U.S. attorney's post in western Louisiana. "Mr. Washington, tell me why you did not intervene?"

"I was also offended" by the noose incident, Washington replied. "I, too, am an African-American. I am a child of the '60s, of the desegregation era. ... But at the end of the day, there are only certain things that the United States attorney can do."

Several representatives and witnesses noted copycat noose incidents that have occurred in Maryland, New York, Louisiana and Illinois in recent weeks.

A senior Justice Department official told the hearing that conciliators from the department's civil rights division had visited Jena several times in recent months and that officials were considering whether further action is warranted.

"The Department of Justice is aware that there are requests to investigate the judicial system in Jena," Lisa M. Krigsten, an official in the civil rights division, told the hearing. "At this time, the Justice Department is gathering information and reviewing that information and taking that request very seriously."

Added Washington: "If we can prove that charging decisions [by Walters] were made in a racially discriminatory manner, that leads to the strong possibility that we can move forward."

Howard Witt writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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