NEW ORLEANS — A group of news organizations is seeking to open juvenile-court proceedings for a black teenager charged with beating a white classmate in a case that sparked a huge civil rights demonstration in central Louisiana last month.
The Associated Press on Oct. 22 joined more than two dozen other organizations, including newspapers, television networks and network affiliates, in filing a court petition that challenges a judge's decision to seal Mychal Bell's case and close court proceedings to the news media and public.
The news organizations seek permission to attend upcoming hearings in the case, to review transcripts of previous hearings and other court records and to lift a gag order against participants in the case.
State District Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr.'s restrictions "substantially limit the (news media's) ability to report to the public the facts about this significant case and unconstitutionally stifle the flow of information to the public," the petition claims.
Lawyers for the news organizations filed the petition in the 28th Judicial District Court in Lasalle Parish, the court where Bell's case is being heard. Mauffray is expected to hear the petition, according to Mary Ellen Roy, a lawyer for the news organizations.
Criminal cases involving juveniles in Louisiana are usually sealed. But Bell, 17, is charged with aggravated second-degree battery, which under state law is one of the violent offenses that allows a juvenile-court case to be opened to the public, Roy said.
Carol Powell Lexing, one of Bell's lawyers, said the case should be open to the public. District Attorney Reed Walters, she added, "opened the door" for public access when he publicly discussed Bell's prior criminal history.
"This is a highly publicized case," she said. "The nation has a right to know what's going on with it."
Bell and five other black students were arrested in December 2006 and charged with attacking Justin Barker, a white classmate at Jena High School, and knocking him unconscious.
The case fueled allegations that Walters was treating blacks more harshly than whites, in part because his office didn't file charges against three other white teens accused of hanging nooses in a tree at the high school a few months before the attack on Barker. Walters has said there is no state law under which he could prosecute the students suspected of hanging the nooses.
Bell is due in court early next month and has a tentative trial date of Dec. 6, his lawyer said.
Bell was originally charged with attempted murder, but that charge was reduced before he was convicted in June of aggravated second-degree battery. In September, however, a state appeals court vacated the conviction and ruled that he shouldn't have been tried as an adult.
Bell is serving an 18-month jail sentence after Mauffray this month revoked Bell's probation for a criminal case that preceded the attack on Barker.
In addition to the Associated Press, news organizations filing the Oct. 22 petition include several Louisiana and Texas newspapers and television stations, The New York Times, USA Today, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, CNN and ABC News.