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The Jena 6: Will Their Biased Judge Be Recused?

The six young people facing trial on a variety of charges in Jena, Louisiana, are now awaiting word on whether their effort to have the white judge at the center of the controversy over their prosecution recused. Yesterday a hearing on the recusal at least gave them some hope of a fair trial, though not a speedy one:

HOUSTON—Lawyers for the five remaining defendants facing trial in the racially divisive Jena 6 incident in Louisiana presented evidence Friday of what they said was bias on the part of the judge presiding over the cases and sought his removal.

After four hours of testimony, a visiting judge appointed by the Louisiana Supreme Court to hear the recusal motion against LaSalle Parish District Judge J.P. Mauffray asked for more evidence and postponed a ruling until at least July.

Defense attorneys have long asserted that the white-dominated justice system in the small central Louisiana town was biased against their African-American clients: six high school students who were initially charged with attempted murder in the December 2006 beating of a white classmate.

That beating capped months of racial tensions set off after three white students hung nooses from a tree at the high school. Last September, more than 20,000 demonstrators traveled to Jena for a march to demonstrate their concerns about the case against the six defendants.

The problem as the Associated Press reports, is both the kind of language that Mauffray has used when discussing the defendants, as well as the kinds of judicial standards at stake when he evidently admits to considering outside information not presented in the court:

On Friday, three attorneys took the stand to testify of experiences with Mauffray they felt indicated a bias against the remaining five teens facing trial.

David Utter, who represents Beard, the youngest member of the “Jena Six,” spent the longest time on the stand. Utter outlined meetings with Mauffray in which the judge repeatedly referred to Beard as violent.

“You should understand that Jesse Ray has a long history of violent acts,” Utter quoted Mauffray as saying.

Mauffray also brought up an incident in which he said Beard “punched a girl,” although Beard was never charged with such an act, according to Utter.

Utter said Mauffray also referred to the other defendants as a “violent bunch,” and called them “trouble makers.”

“He said that since the arrest of the Jena Six, violent crime has gone down in Jena,” Utter testified.

The attorneys who testified all quoted Mauffray as speaking of the defendants as “violent” and said he repeatedly called Bailey the “ringleader.”

Mauffray testified that he was only trying to make sure defense attorneys were aware of all the information on their clients.

“If I’m aware of certain stuff it does lawyers good to know that,” Mauffray said.

And as the Chicago Trib report from Howard Witt noted:

Mauffray "has proven through his testimony that he does harbor prejudice and prejudgment in these cases," said Derwyn Bunton, an attorney for Theodore Shaw. "We want a fair trial with a fair judge, and the hearing illustrated we cannot have that with Judge Mauffray."

It’s good to see that the wheels of justice are turning in this case, but it’s happening way too slowly. As the folks at the Jena 6 Blog note:

So whatever happened to the constitutional right to a speedy trial? Charges were first leveled against them more than 17 months ago, and now another month long delay.

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David Neiwert

David Neiwert

David Neiwert is the managing editor of Firedoglake. He's a freelance journalist based in Seattle and the author/editor of the blog Orcinus. He also is the author of Strawberry Days: How Internment Destroyed a Japanese American Community (Palgrave/St. Martin's Press, June 2005), as well as Death on the Fourth of July: The Story of a Killing, a Trial, and Hate Crime in America (Palgrave/St. Martin's, 2004), and In God's Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest (1999, WSU Press). His reportage for on domestic terrorism won the National Press Club Award for Distinguished Online Journalism in 2000.