JENA, La. — A Louisiana judge ruled recently that legal proceedings against Mychal Bell, one of a group of black teenagers whose prosecution in the beating of a white classmate was deemed too harsh by civil rights leaders, must be open to the public.
“The right to an open trial is very important,” said State District Judge Thomas Yeager, who made the ruling Nov. 21 during a hearing in a lawsuit filed by news organizations. “We need to have public trials so the public has confidence in what we do.”
The district judge presiding over Bell’s trial, J.P. Mauffray, agreed earlier this month to open the trial but insisted on keeping news media and the public out of the hearings leading up to it. Yeager handled the news-media lawsuit since Mauffray is a defendant in it.
Yeager ruled that because the charges involve violence, all proceedings against Bell — including hearings, the trial and sentencing — must be open even though Bell is being tried as a juvenile.
Yeager also denied an argument by Don Wilson, who represents Mauffray, that he did not have the right to rule against another judge of equal standing.
“This belongs in the Third Circuit,” Wilson said.
Wilson asked Yeager to stay his order to give him a chance to appeal the ruling. Yeager said he would do so only if District Attorney Reed Walters and attorneys representing Bell agreed to postpone any further hearings or proceedings until the appeal is decided. Bell is scheduled to be tried Dec. 6.
Attorneys for Bell said they would meet with him and his family before deciding if they would allow a delay.
“We’ll do what’s best for Mychal Bell,” Robert Noel said.
Bill Furlow, a spokesman for Walters, said the district attorney believed it was up to the defense to decide whether to continue the adjudication hearing. Furlow said Walters would not oppose a delay if the defense sought one.
“If [the defense] does not ask for a continuance, [Walters] believes he is obligated under the Children’s Code to proceed with the hearing,” Furlow said.
Bell, 17, faces charges of aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy for his alleged part in an attack last December on Justin Barker, a white student at Jena High School.
Barker spent several hours in the emergency room after the attack, but was discharged and attended a school event later in the day. Bell originally was charged as an adult with attempted murder. That charge was reduced before a jury convicted him in June of aggravated second-degree battery. In September that verdict was thrown out and Bell was ordered to be tried as a juvenile.
The charges against Bell and five others — the so-called Jena Six — sparked a huge civil-rights demonstration in Jena in September.
The activists said prosecutors treated blacks more harshly than whites, and pointed to an incident three months before the attack on Barker in which three other white teens were accused of hanging nooses from a tree at the high school. The three were suspended from school but never criminally charged; LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters has said there was no state crime to charge them with.
The Associated Press and 24 other news organizations went to court seeking permission to attend hearings in Bell’s case, and to review transcripts of previous hearings and other court records in the central Louisiana case.
“I think this is a victory for the media and for the public and for a citizen’s right to know what is going on in the Mychal Bell case,” said Mary Ellen Roy, who represented the news media.