The man who is prosecuting six high school students in Jena, Louisiana, on charges of attempted murder appeared before reporters yesterday to justify his prosecution, which arose out of a schoolyard fight. The conviction of one of the students (the others haven't been tried yet) was overturned on appeal earlier this week because the prosecutor illegally tried the defendant, a juvenile, as an adult. The kid remains in jail, as crowds of protesters descend today on the town of 8,000 in protest.
The Jena fight was the culmination of a year of racial tension at the school, touched off when black students insisted on sitting under a tree on school grounds that was reserved for whites. Reed Walter, the Louisiana prosecutor, showed up at the school with armed police during the height of the tensions and announced to the black students present that he could "make your lives disappear" with the stroke of a pen. Nobody is recommending his disbarment.
The legal distinction between the two cases seems to be that the complaining witness in the North Carolina case was a black kid and the defendants were white, while in the Louisiana case, the complaining witness is a white kid, and the defendants are all black.
Prosecutorial excess against whites on behalf of blacks is a grave matter, a miscarriage of justice that demands the application of harsh penalties. Prosecutorial excess against blacks on behalf of whites, by contrast, is a trivial matter, so common in our system that it's taken for granted.
Twelve dozen years post-emancipation and 50 years into the civil rights movement, we haven't progressed much as a people. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised that the legal system reflects our ignorance and brutality, but we ought to be outraged.