Racial equality in the U.S. justice system came under scrutiny Tuesday during a U.S. House committee hearing that examined the highly-publicized "Jena 6" case. The case involves six black teenagers who were initially charged with attempted murder in connection with the beating of a white student. VOA's Robert Raffaele has more.
Emotions ran high Tuesday during a House of Representatives committee hearing looking into the extent of federal intervention in cases of alleged "hate crimes," especially in the Jena 6 case.
Democratic Party Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee directed her anger at Donald Washington, the U.S. Attorney for Louisiana's western district, where the Jena 6 incident took place.
"Mr. Washington, tell me why you did not intervene, not by way of the legal system, but the consultation that the U.S. attorneys have with the local district attorneys. Why didn't you intervene? This (sic) broken lives could have been prevented if you had taken the symbolic responsibility that you have being the first African-American appointed to the western district. I don't know what else to say! I am outraged!" she said.
After committee chairman John Conyers called for quiet, Washington responded. "First of all, I did intervene. I did engage the district attorney. We had conversations about his charging decisions and things of that sort. At the end of the day, there are only certain things that a United States attorney can do, that a federal representative can do, with respect to a state and how it handles its criminal justice system."
The case of the so-called Jena 6 drew tens of thousands of protesters to the Louisiana town on September 20.
Local prosecutors initially charged five of six African-American teenage suspects as adults with attempted murder in the beating of a white high school student in 2006.
The incident at the school happened after nooses were hung from a tree -- a symbol of the lynching of African-Americans in segregationist times. Three white students accused in that incident were suspended from school, but not prosecuted.
One of the black suspects in the beating, 17-year-old Mychal Bell, served nearly 10 months in jail. Following public outcry, his sentence was reduced to a lesser charge, and later overturned. But last week, a judge sent Bell back to jail for violating probation on a previous conviction.
Since the Jena case made headlines, there have been other high-profile noose incidents, including a noose hung on the office doorknob of a black professor at Columbia University in New York.
The U.S. Justice Department has created a task force to handle those investigations.
Donald Washington said the department investigated the Jena noose-hanging case, but did not bring charges because the federal government does not bring hate crime charges against juveniles.
But many lawmakers -- and civil rights activists -- said there needs to be a federal mechanism for correcting what many see as a racial double standard in some local jurisdictions.
Richard Cohen is the president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center and said at the hearing, "What we're here to call for is a level playing field, and equal justice under the law. And that's not what's happened in Jena. The prosecutor unfortunately sees race. And when that happens, there are calls for retribution. And this kind of stuff has to end. Someone has to have enough common sense to say, 'enough is enough.' "
Civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton said the Jena case must result in change, or else future generations of minorities will be in danger. "If we can't turn to the federal government, as we have for the last 50 years, then what are we telling young students who march to Jena -- where do they turn?"
The American Civil Liberties Union praised the House hearing, calling on Congress to eliminate racism in the justice system.