WASHINGTON – Under pointed questioning from Democratic House members who decried the lack of federal intervention in the racially charged Jena 6 case, U.S. Justice Department officials revealed Tuesday that they are now weighing an investigation into allegations of systemic racial bias in the administration of justice in the small, mostly white Louisiana town.
U.S. Attorney Donald Washington also said for the first time that the hanging of nooses from a shade tree in the Jena High School courtyard in September 2006 by three white students constituted a federal hate crime, but that federal authorities opted not to prosecute the case because of the ages of the white youths involved. The noose was seen as a warning to stay away from the tree directed at black students that triggered months of interracial fights in the town.
School officials dismissed the noose incident as a youthful prank and issued brief suspensions to the white students involved, angering black residents.
“Yes, hanging a noose under these circumstances is a hate crime,” Washington, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Louisiana, told a House Judiciary Committee hearing convened to examine the Jena case. “If these acts had been committed by others who were not juveniles, this would have been a federal hate crime, and we would have moved forward.”
But during the four-hour hearing, boycotted by most Republican members of the House panel, black committee members said they remained dissatisfied with the reluctance of Justice Department officials to intervene more forcefully in what they regard as the excessive prosecution of six black Jena students for a Dec. 4 attack on a white student.
The white student was briefly knocked unconscious and was treated and released at a hospital, but Jena District Attorney Reed Walters initially charged the black students with attempted murder. After public outcry about the case mounted, Walters reduced the charges to aggravated second-degree battery.
But Walters’ refusal to charge other whites in the town who attacked blacks with similar crimes prompted national civil rights leaders, joined by more than 20,000 demonstrators who marched through Jena on Sept. 20, to assert that the town’s justice system was biased.
“Shame on you!” Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, shouted at Washington, the first African American to hold the U.S. attorney’s post in western Louisiana. “Mr. Washington, tell me why you did not intervene? Six broken lives could have been prevented if you had taken action.”
“I was also offended” by the noose incident, Washington replied. “I too am an African American. I am a child of the ‘60s, of the desegregation era. … But at the end of the day, there are only certain things that the United States attorney can do.”