Court asked to end Jena trial secrecy

A coalition of major American media companies filed a 1st Amendment petition Monday seeking to open to public scrutiny the criminal trial of Mychal Bell, one of the teenage defendants in the controversial Jena 6 case in Louisiana.

The legal motion, filed in LaSalle Parish District Court, challenges the decisions by presiding Judge J.P. Mauffray to close the proceedings in Bell's juvenile case and order all the parties involved not to speak about it. Mauffray's orders run counter to Louisiana juvenile laws, precedents set by the Louisiana Supreme Court and provisions of both the Louisiana and U.S. Constitutions, the petition asserts.

The Chicago Tribune is the lead plaintiff in the petition, joined by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times Co., The Associated Press, Hearst Corp., Belo Corp., Gannett Co., CNN and ABC News.

Bell, 17, is one of six black teenagers charged in an attack last Dec. 4 at Jena High School in which a white student was beaten and knocked briefly unconscious. That incident capped months of racial tensions in the mostly white Louisiana town that was set off after three white youths hung nooses from a tree at the high school.

LaSalle Parish District Atty. Reed Walters initially charged the six black youths with attempted murder, though the white victim was treated and released at a hospital. After the case gained national attention following a May 20 Chicago Tribune story, Walters reduced the charges to aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit aggravated second-degree battery.

Bell, the first defendant to come to trial, originally was tried in June as an adult and convicted by an all-white jury after his court-appointed public defender called no witnesses. But a Louisiana appellate court vacated that conviction, finding that Walters and Mauffray had improperly tried Bell as an adult rather than a juvenile.

After Walters decided to refile the battery and conspiracy charges against Bell in juvenile court, Mauffray agreed to release Bell on $45,000 bond after the youth had been held for nearly 10 months. Two weeks later, Mauffray ordered Bell jailed for 18 months on four prior juvenile convictions, for simple battery and criminal destruction of property.

Mauffray's reasons for sending Bell back to jail are unknown because the judge ordered Bell's juvenile proceedings to be conducted in private.

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