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'Jena 6' proceedings should have been open

By The Associated Press
11.09.08

NEW ORLEANS — A Louisiana judge did not have authority to close the juvenile court proceedings involving a defendant in the racially charged "Jena Six" case, a state appeals court has decided.

The decision, released Nov. 6 from the Louisiana 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal in Lake Charles, was a partial victory for news media outlets that challenged the closure of the courtroom in the case of Mychal Bell. But the decision does not say whether the news media can have access to records in the Bell case, which ended with a guilty plea.

Bell was one of a group of black teenagers who once faced attempted murder charges in the beating of a white classmate at Jena High School.

The severity of the original charges brought widespread criticism and eventually led to more than 20,000 people converging in September 2007 on the tiny central Louisiana town of Jena for the largest civil rights march in decades.

Charges for all of the defendants were reduced. Bell eventually pleaded guilty to a juvenile charge of second-degree battery.

The Associated Press and other news organizations had filed suit to open the proceedings against Bell. The judge in the case, District Judge J.P. Maufray, refused. The media appealed and another district judge ordered that the case be opened, an order that Maufray never complied with.

The 3rd Circuit said that Maufray was correct in the assertion that one district-level state judge cannot issue such an order on another. But the appeals court also said that Maufray had no discretion to close the Bell proceedings.

While some juvenile court cases can be closed, Bell's case fell under a law that requires open court for juvenile cases involving certain specified crimes of violence or felonies, the court said.

The 3rd Circuit ruling, written by Judge John Saunders for a panel that also included judges James Genovese and Chris Roy Jr., sent the case back to the district court for "proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion."

Mary Ellen Roy, a New Orleans attorney who represented the news media, said the ruling, while not a complete victory, was an important indicator that future juvenile proceedings would have to be opened. She said a decision had not been made yet on whether to pursue the records in the Bell case.


Previous
Judge in Jena 6 case keeps records closed
J.P. Mauffray says plea agreement, other files will remain sealed while he appeals court order that opened hearings, documents in Mychal Bell's case. 12.11.07

Related

Jena, La., rally harkens back to civil rights era marches

But unlike landmark protests of ‘50s and ‘60s, demonstration to support six black teenagers has festive, laid-back air. 09.21.07

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