Students of different races in Jena High School rarely sat together. Black students sat on bleachers near the auditorium, while white students sat under a large shade tree, referred to as the “white tree,” in the center of the school courtyard.
During a school assembly on August 31, 2006, a black male freshman at Jena High School, asked permission from the principal to sit in the shade of the “white tree.” According to the recounting of events given by U.S. Attorney Donald Washington, the question was posed in a “jocular fashion.” The principal told the students they could “sit wherever they wanted.”
The following morning, three nooses were discovered hanging from the tree. Anthony Jackson, one of two black teachers at the high school, recalled, “I jokingly said to another teacher, ‘One’s for you, one’s for me. Who’s the other one for?’” Jena’s principal learned that three white students were responsible and recommended expulsion. The board of education overruled his recommendation, to which Superintendent Roy Breithaupt agreed. The punishment was reduced to three days of in-school suspension. The school superintendent was quoted as saying, "Adolescents play pranks. I don’t think it was a threat to anybody."Black residents of Jena claim that this decision stoked racial tensions that led to subsequent events. The school district and parents who were aware of the incident did not report it to the police or any legal authority, though such incidents may be prosecuted as federal hate crimes by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Accounts conflict as to what happened afterwards. According to some accounts, on September 5, a number of black students organized a peaceful sit-in under the white tree in response to the commuted punishment of the perpetrators. The protest was then dispersed by police. U.S. Attorney Washington, speaking in July 2007, he could find no confirmation of this protest occurring. He could confirm that police were called to the school several times in the days after the noose incident in response to a rash of interracial fights between students.
The principal called an impromptu assembly on September 6, which segregated itself into white and black sections. The Jena Police Department asked LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters to attend and speak. Walters was unhappy with the request because he was busy preparing for a case and, upon arrival, felt that the students were not paying proper attention to him. Walters is alleged to have threatened the protesters if they didn’t stop fussing over an “innocent prank” and to have stated, “See this pen? I can end your lives with the stroke of a pen.” Black students state that Walters looked specifically at members of the black audience as he said this. Walters and school board member Billy Fowler, also present, deny that the comments were specifically directed at black students. Nevertheless, police began patrolling the halls of Jena High on September 7 and the day after, the school was declared to be in total lockdown.
On September 10, several dozen black students attempted to address the school board concerning the recent events but were refused because the board was of the opinion that “the noose issue” had been adequately resolved. Racial tensions and fights continued through the fall but were held in check by the ongoing football season. The high school team was doing unusually well, in large part due to efforts of several star black players, and students were unwilling to do anything to upset the season.
On 30 November 2006, the main building of the high school was set on fire. The building was gutted and had to be later demolished. Blacks and whites accused each other of the arson.
On Friday, December 1st, there was a private party, attended mostly by whites, at the Fair Barn. Five black youth, including 16-year-old Robert Bailey, attempted to enter the party at about 11pm. According to U.S. Attorney Washington, they were told by a woman that they were not allowed inside without an invitation. The five youth persisted, stating that some friends were already in the party. A white man, not a student, then jumped in front of the woman and began a fight. The fight was broken up and the woman told both the white man and five black youth to leave the party. Once outside, the black students were involved in another fight with a group of white men, not students. Police were called to investigate. Several months later, Justin Sloan, a white male, was charged with simple battery for his role in the fight and was put on probation. Bailey later stated that one of the white men broke a beer bottle over his head, but there are no records of medical treatment being given.
The following day, 2 December 2006, there was an incident stemming from this fight at the local Gotta Go convenience store. A student who was at the party ran into Bailey and several friends. Aggressive words were exchanged and the white student ran back to his pickup and produced a pistol-grip shotgun. Bailey ran after the white student and wrestled him for control of the firearm. Bailey’s friends intervened in the scuffle and took the firearm away. Bailey refused to return the shotgun, eventually taking it home. Local police reported that the accounts of the white student and black students contradicted each other and formed a report based on testimony taken from eyewitnesses. This resulted in Bailey being charged with three counts: theft of a firearm, second-degree robbery and disturbing the peace. The white student who had produced the weapon was not charged.
December 4, 2006, a white student named Justin Barker, aged 17, loudly discussed, in a manner that National Public Radio characterized as “bragged”, how Bailey had been beaten up by a white man on Friday night. When Barker walked out of the school gymnasium into the courtyard later that day, he was assaulted by Bailey and five other black students, and was temporarily knocked out. The concussion is variously described in the media as either resulting from a punch to the face or from hitting his head on concrete when being thrown to the ground. Barker was then kicked several times. Barker was examined by a doctor at the local hospital. After two hours of treatment and observation for his concussion and an eye that had swollen shut, Barker was discharged in time to go to the school Ring Ceremony that evening. In the meantime the six black students, eventually dubbed the “Jena Six”, were arrested.
The six students were initially charged with aggravated assault. However, District Attorney Walters increased the charges to attempted second-degree murder, provoking protests from black residents that the charges, which could result in the defendants being imprisoned past age 50, were disproportional to the crime.
On June 26, 2007, the first day of trial for defendant Mychal Bell, Walters suddenly agreed to reduce the charges for Bell to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery. A charged of aggravated battery requires the use of a “deadly weapon”. Walters thus argued that the tennis shoes that Bell was wearing and used to kick Barker were deadly weapons, an argument with which the all-white jury agreed. Bell was found guilty and will face the possibility of up to 22 years in prison when he is sentenced on September 20, 2007.
The case is currently in dispute as the court-appointed public defender did not call a single witness in his attempt to defend Bell.
As of June 26, 2007 there is no word as to whether the charges of the other five defendants will be reduced.
In late July, U.S. Attorney Donald Washington noted the lack of connexity between the noose incident and the beating at Jena High school, noting that the 40 plus statements all failed to mention the noose incident.
Bell’s new defense attorneys, Louis Scott and Carol Powell-Lexing, plan on requesting that a new trial be held on the grounds that Bell shouldn’t have been tried as an adult and that the trial should have been held in another parish.