JENA, La. (AP) – The Jena Six case, which once prompted a massive civil rights demonstration and drew international attention, saw the final chapter played out quietly.
Five neatly dressed young men answered “Yes Sir,” on Friday as state District Judge Tom Yeager asked them if they accepted the terms of a deal that included pleading no contest to misdemeanor simple battery.
The charges against the five – Carwin Jones, Jesse Ray Beard, Robert Bailey Jr., Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw – had previously been reduced from attempted murder to aggravated second-degree battery after they were accused of beating and kicking schoolmate Justin Barker.
Civil rights leaders railed against the harshness of the original charge, saying it was because the defendants were black and Barker was white.
The severity of the original charges brought widespread criticism and eventually led more than 20,000 people to converge in September 2007 on the tiny town of Jena for a major civil rights march. Some $275,000 was raised to hire a large defense team for the six, said Beard’s attorney, David Utter.
Racial tensions at Jena High School reportedly grew in the months before the attack. Several months prior to the attack, nooses were hung in a tree on the campus, sparking outrage in the black community which viewed them as racist symbols of lynchings. Residents said there were fights, but nothing too serious until December 2006 when Barker was attacked.
“Everybody pointed a finger at Jena during this, but this happens to African-American males across the country,” Utter said. “These young men were lucky that people cared and donated money so they could afford good attorneys. That made the difference.”
The plea deal gave the defendants seven days probation, a $500 fine and court costs. Mychal Bell, the sixth defendant, had previously pleaded guilty to a second-degree battery charge and received an 18-month sentence.
“I just thank God that it’s all over,” said John Jenkins, Jones’ father. “It’s been a long, painful journey for everyone on both sides of this thing.”
Barker and his family and friends sat without expression through the hearing. Barker’s attorney said he has graduated and is now working in the oil fields. The family did not comment.
As part of the deal, one of the attorneys read a statement from the defendants in which they said they knew of nothing Barker had done to provoke the attack.
“To be clear, not one of us heard Justin use any slur or say anything that justified Mychal Bell attacking Justin nor did any of us see Justin do anything that would cause Mychal to react,” the statement said.
The statement also expressed sympathy for Barker and his family, and acknowledged the past two-and-a-half years had “caused Justin and his parents tremendous pain and suffering, much of which has gone unrecognized.”
None of the defendants spoke to reporters.
By pleading no contest, the five do not admit guilt but acknowledge prosecutors had enough evidence for a conviction. LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters said in a statement that he could have won convictions but wanted to end the matter for Barker.
All but Shaw were assessed $500 in court costs. The judge did not tack that punishment on to Shaw’s case because he stayed in jail for nearly seven months, unable to raise bail, following his initial arrest.
Each paid the fine and court costs immediately. The payment of restitution to Barker was also part of the deal, but the amount was not released. A lawsuit filed by Barker against the group was also settled Friday, though the terms were confidential.
The only member of the group to serve jail time was Bell, who pleaded guilty in December 2007 to second-degree battery and was sentenced to 18 months in jail.
Four of Friday’s defendants have graduated from high school, and all are attending or getting ready to attend college. Purvis has completed his first year and Bell is planning to attend college this fall. Beard is a senior in high school in Connecticut.
“They can move along with their lives,” said Bailey’s attorney, James Boren. “And because there are no felonies they can look forward to full lives ahead.”