There's something strange going on in Jena, LA. The Town Talk covers it in an article this morning.
Some background: There were some racial tensions at Jena high school earlier this year. Some white students hung nooses in the tree in front of the school and the black community took it as a threat.
Hanging nooses in trees in front of a school is a dumb idea. It is easily construed as racist and I, personally, have no problem agreeing with the black community that someone should be punished for that behavior. It was divisive, it was uncalled for, it was in bad taste. High school kids tend to run their mouths, calling names and acting like asses. High school administrators squelch that behavior whenever possible, through a number of tactics. These might include having sit-down meetings with entire classes of students, punishing the guilty parties, and reminding everyone of the requirements for civilized behavior.
Sometime later, on December 4th, the mouth-running turned into a fight at the school. The reported facts are pretty sparse but the fight culminated in one student, Justin Barker, going to the hospital for multiple head-thumps. Justin, thankfully, was not permanently injured. Six black students are charged with battering Justin. The first of those six begins trial this morning.
With an all-white jury. The Town Talk reports that of a venire of 150, only 50 people reported for jury duty. Those 50 were Caucasian. The other members of the venire failed to show, and no black person reported for duty. With no black citizens on the jury, the deck is stacked against the black defendant. That isn't to say that an all white jury won't give him a fair trial, it is to say that the presumption of color-blind justice is impossible to maintain. In this case, the jury was stacked by those who failed to report.
Jury duty is the highest responsibility of a citizen to insure that the criminal justice system works like it is supposed to work. To have a fair trial, the jury venire must reflect the racial make-up of the parish. I have known judges to go to great lengths to insure that the jury venire was fairly and diligently drawn from the pool of eligible citizens. I have also known judges who dealt harshly with those who decided for one reason or another to neglect the call for jury service.
Were I the judge, I don't know how I would have handled the fact that 2/3 of my venire failed to show. I suspect that I would have postponed the trial for a week and ordered the Sheriff to round up those hundred citizens who failed to report. I would order a hearing on Wednesday for those citizens to explain to the Court why their failure should not be construed as Contempt of Court. The hearings would be short, sweet, and fairly pointed. Jail time would result for those who failed to convince me that they were not trying to undermine a basic keystone of American jurisprudence. The vast majority of those citizens would be ordered to serve 30 days in jail.
Then, when the news got out that failing to report for jury duty would result in jail time, we would call a new venire and commence trial.
My take on the "Jena Six"? I don't know. I haven't seen the facts. That is what trial is for. Those folks demonstrating in front of the Courthouse haven't seen the facts either.