District Judge J.P. Mauffray approved the plea agreement Monday afternoon, just three days before Bell's trial in juvenile court was to have begun. It appears that both the Jena legal system and the other Jena Six families are in plea negotiations that could bring a conclusion to a controversial case that drew more than 20,000 civil rights protesters to Jena in September and earned the town a portrayal in the national media as a racist backwater.
Villagers have been following this story well before the mainstream media learned about it. It was national pressure from groups like The AfroSpear and others last spring that caused Walters to back away from attempted murder charges. Walter was hard-headed when he tried Bell on those charges as an adult in June and won a conviction, but a state appeals court reversed the verdict in September, ruling that Bell should have been prosecuted as a juvenile.
Since then, Walters has come under growing political pressure to conclude the Jena 6 cases. Local leaders had been dreading a drawn-out series of criminal trials that would have kept Jena in the spotlight throughout 2008. And Louisiana's outgoing governor, Kathleen Blanco, directly pressed Walters in September not to pursue an appeal of the decision that struck down Bell's adult conviction.
Walters said in a statement Monday that he hopes to have the remaining Jena 6 cases resolved "early next year."
"A trial would be very bad for the town, very bad for Reed Walters, very bad for anybody in Jena associated with the process, and it could turn out very bad for the defendants as well," said Alan Bean, head of a small civil rights group called Friends of Justice who was the first activist to call attention to the Jena case. "It had the potential for being a perfect storm in which everybody lost."
Parents on both sides of the case agreed.
"If the district attorney makes an offer to us and my son doesn't have to do any jail time, that would be fine," said Tina Jones, who insists that her son, Jena 6 defendant Bryant Purvis, was not involved in the school attack. "I'm ready to get this all over with."
Plea bargains "would be the best solution, as long as they don't get away with no punishment at all," said David Barker, father of Justin Barker, the school beating victim. "This case has taken its toll on everybody. Justin has ulcers now. Letting it drag on for years would just be additional stress for him."
Bell's attorneys said they agreed to the plea bargain to spare the former high school football star the danger of being convicted of more serious charges and also to win early release from juvenile custody. Mychal Bell will get credit for the nine months he spent in jail while awaiting trial. His attorneys said he could be released by June.