Prosecutorial Misconduct More Dangerous Than Racism: The Injustice in Jena
By LINN WASHINGTON, Jr.
The stench surrounding the office of Louisiana’s LaSalle Parish prosecutor Reed Walters, for his discriminatory decisions in the Jena 6 case, is about to become more malodorous activists announced during recent anti-Walters protests across America.
Activists leading these coordinated coast-to-coast protests announced plans to collect dirty sneakers and send them to Walters.
Sending sneakers is a mocking slap at Walters’ decision to press serious assault charges against six black teens arising from a school yard fight on the specious claim that they used deadly weapons against the white victim: their sneakers.
Walters’ claims kicking the white youth during the fight where the victim sustained no serious injury constituted use of deadly weapons an offense that could land the black youths in prison for decades.
Walters is the same prosecutor who initially refused to press charges against white teens who bashed a black teen in the head with a beer bottle while ejecting him from a ‘whites-only’ party last fall in Jena, a small rural town about 40-miles northeast of Alexandria, La.
And, this is the same prosecutor still refusing to charge a young white man for pulling a shotgun on a few black teens in Jena yet the same prosecutor who has lodged theft of firearm charges against those black teens for refusing to return that weapon to its owner.
“We are collecting sneakers dirty, stinky sneakers to send to that racist DA in Jena,” declared Philadelphia NAACP branch president J. Whyatt Mondesire during remarks at a protest in that city held simultaneously with a massive demonstration that recently paralyzed Jena.
The actions of Walter plus those of other officials and individuals in Jena, LA are now the latest flashpoint in America’s cauldron of race-related problems.
That school yard fight involving the Jena 6 culminated a series of interracial incidents at Jena’s high school that began in Fall 2006 when three white students placed lynch nooses on a tree in the high school’s yard.
The nooses appeared after blacks sat under that school yard tree traditionally considered a ‘whites-only’ shade spot.
Incidents after the nooses involved white teens attacking black teens with fists, beer bottles and that gun incident.
Top Jena school district officials overruled the high school principal’s recommendation to expel the trio responsible for hanging the nooses, dismissing their inflammatory action as an adolescent prank.
DA Walters is the lawyer for Jena’s school district. It is unclear if Walters played any role in overruling decision to suspend not expel.
Yet, a recent report from Jena by Democracy Now host Amy Goodman states Walters refused the school board access to a school district report on the school yard fight during the board’s deliberations before it voted to expel those black teens’ involved in that fight.
Some see Walters’ withholding information from school board members (the district’s report) as analogous to a prosecutor withholding evidence from a jury during a criminal proceeding which is misconduct.
Walters strenuously rejected charges that race played any role in his prosecutorial decisions during a press conference the day before that protest in Jena that drew tens-of-thousands of participants from across America.
Flanking Walters at his press conference was the white victim of that fight, a young man treated at a hospital yet well enough to attend a high school function hours after the fight. Witness claim this youth precipitated the fight by taunting the black teen beat with the beer bottle with racist epithets.
Walters declared, “It is not and never has been about race. It is about finding justice for an innocent victim and holding people accountable for their actions. That’s what it is about.”
During that press conference Walters said he wanted to prosecute the students accused of hanging the nooses but couldn’t find any applicable Louisiana law.
Many ridicule Walters’ proposition.
Critics contend since Walters was creative enough to find deadly weapons in sneakers he could have made some creative use of laws regarding disorderly conduct or terroristic threatsif in fact he felt as claimed that the noose hanging was a “villainous act”
In July 1934 a prosecutor in Bastrop, La about 60-miles north of Jena refused to investigative the lynching of a black man in that town’s public square.
This white prosecutor told a mob numbering 3,000 that he “sympathized with its attitude” moments before the hanging of this suspected criminal, according to an account in a New York newspaper.
The sympathy shown to whites by that 1934 prosecutor in Bastrop is eerily similar to sympathies displayed by Walters whose impermissible race based charging practices violate any legal discretion given prosecutors for lodging charges.
The reality is Walters making sneakers ‘deadly weapons’ to press the most serious criminal charges against the Jena 6 arguably abuses if not violates Louisiana’s Rules of Conduct for prosecutors.
Rule 3.8 of that lawyer Conduct code is captioned: Special Responsibilities of a Prosecutor.
Rule 3.8(a) states prosecutors should “refrain from prosecuting a charge that the prosecutor knows is not supposed by probable cause.”
Probable cause, according to standard legal definitions, includes an apparent state of facts which would induce a reasonably prudent person to believe that the accused committed the crime charged.
A school yard fight (even a beat-down) with no serious injury does not rise to the level of attempted murder the charge Walters’ initially lodged against the Jena 6.
Presumably Walters knows Rule 3.8(a).
When Walters declared his refusal to answer all reporters’ questions about aspects of the Jena 6 case that press conference, he cited restrictions on public comments by prosecutors regarding pending cases contained in Rule 3.8(f).
A claim by Walters that he is bound by Rule 3.8(f) but is unaware of Rule 3.8(a) would sizzle with more idiocy than his previous statements defending his actions.
While racism is rampant in matters revolving around the Jena 6, this incident exposes a deep seated problem infecting American society: abusive misconduct by prosecutors.
Abuse by prosecutors is a profound problem nationwide routinely dismissed by authorities and the public at-large. The mandate for prosecutors is to seek justice not just conviction a duty too many prosecutors disregard.
“Prosecutors have destroyed the rule of law and put rule by prosecutors in its place,” Paul Craig Roberts noted in an excellent article posted on Counterpunch in August 2006.
In 1999, the then head of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers remarked that the “problem of prosecutors breaking the law is more frightening, and does more damage to society, than any common criminal.”
While the numbers of certified bigots among prosecutors engaged in misconduct may be small, the number of prosecutors knowingly offering false testimony (often from police), fabricating evidence, concealing evidence of innocence and chucking fair play is alarmingly large.
A win-at-any-cost attitude is widely viewed a driver for prosecutorial misconduct.
Rare public outrage at prosecutorial misconduct appears reserved to high profile cases involving whites like the Duke lacrosse players. Authorities stripped the law license from the DA in that case, Mike Nifong, even sending him to jail for a day following televised disciplinary proceedings that constituted a very public flogging.
In contrast to Nifong, the Texas prosecutor responsible for the false convictions of 38 people in an infamous 1999 drug raid occurred outside televised glare.
Offending prosecutor Terry McEachern received a wrist slap penalty of paying $6,225 in fines and promising to not break lawyer rules for two years.
The misconduct of now ex-prosecutor McEachern, lead to authorities paying $5-million to the victims of that Tulia, TX drug case resting solely on claims of a corrupt undercover agent.
One speaker at that pro-Jena 6 protest in Philadelphia, respected defense attorney Michael Coard, said the best defense against prosecutorial misconduct is aggressive, consistent action against offenders.
“If prosecutors knew they would lose their law licenses and get locked-up, they won’t engage in misconduct,” Coard said acknowledging little likelihood of that happening because most judges are ex-prosecutors.
Linn Washington Jr. is a Philadelphia based journalist who is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program. Washington is a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune, America’s oldest African-American owned newspaper.