Selection of Yeager to ‘Jena Six’ case lauded by defense

By Abbey Brown • • August 6, 2008

An attorney for one of the “Jena Six” defendants on Tuesday applauded the Louisiana Supreme Court’s decision to appoint Thomas Yeager to handle the Jena cases.

“We are pleased that the court has selected a judge from a metropolitan area that is close enough to Jena to understand the dynamics of the case but far enough away that he can be independent,” Jim Boren, attorney for defendant Robert Bailey Jr., said.

“We are very pleased that Judge Mauffray has been recused and are looking forward to getting the case back on track to resolve a number of issues that have not yet been litigated.”

On Monday, the Louisiana Supreme Court ruled that Yeager of the 9th District Court in Rapides Parish would take over as the presiding judge in the remaining five Jena Six cases.

Yeager ruled last week that 28th Judicial Court Judge J.P. Mauffray Jr. of LaSalle Parish would be recused from the case.

The remaining defendants -(motion-of-5)- Bailey, Jesse Ray Beard, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw — have been charged with aggravated second-degree battery, and in addition to wanting to get Mauffray off the case, their attorney have filed motions to recuse LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters.

Walters declined to comment, only saying that he is still considering appealing Yeager’s ruling to recuse Mauffray.

Boren pointed out there are a number of outstanding motions that Bailey and the other defendants have, including change of venue, that haven’t been heard as the fate of Mauffray was in limbo.

David Utter, one of Beard’s attorneys, provided most of the testimony during Mauffray’s recusal hearing in May. He testified that Mauffray had made several statements to a number of people indicating he has prejudged the defendants’ guilt and sentence including using phrases like “ringleader,” “troublemaker” and “violent bunch.”

The defendants — all black — have become known as the Jena Six and were accused of attacking fellow student Justin Barker, who is white, at Jena High School in December 2006. Initially the teens were charged with attempted murder, but the charges have since been reduced. The case has brought national attention to the rural LaSalle Parish community of Jena, with more than 20,000 marching through the community nearly a year ago.

In his reasons for recusing Mauffray from the Jena Six cases, Yeager wrote: “The Court finds that there is an ‘appearance of impropriety’ when a reasonable person with knowledge of all the facts would conclude that the judge’s impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”

Mauffray was the presiding judge over the cases involving Mychal Bell, the sixth defendant. Bell’s June 2007 adult conviction was overturned by the state 3rd Circuit Court of Appeal, but in December 2007 he pleaded guilty to a juvenile charge of second-degree battery.

“We are pleased the Supreme Court acted so quickly and look forward to moving on to the important issues in the case,” Utter said.

Boren said he expects the next step to be a status conference with Walters, the defense attorneys and Yeager to set up dates to deal with outstanding motions that need to be resolved before the cases go to trial.