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Lesser plea OKd in case of Jena 6

The racially sensitive cases moved closer to resolution as charges were further reduced.

The district attorney in the racially charged Jena Six case in Louisiana agreed to a plea bargain yesterday that sharply reduces the charges against the first of the six black teenagers who was facing trial. Attorneys for the other defendants said the prosecutor appeared eager to avoid taking their cases to court as well.

LaSalle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters, whose initial decision to charge the teens with attempted murder for beating a white youth had been condemned as excessive by civil rights leaders, dropped a conspiracy charge against Mychal Bell, 17, and agreed to let him plead guilty to a juvenile charge of second-degree battery. Bell was sentenced to 18 months, with credit for the 10 months he has served.

Bell also must pay court costs plus $935 to the white youth's family, undergo counseling, and be reintegrated into the school system, his lawyers said.

District Judge J.P. Mauffray approved the agreement yesterday, three days before Bell's trial in juvenile court was to have begun. Bell's attorneys said Walters offered them the plea agreement Thursday, a week after media companies successfully sued Mauffray to open the trial.

"This case has been a very difficult chapter in the town's life and for the individuals involved," said David Utter, attorney for another defendant. "My sense is that the district attorney would like to close this chapter now."

Utter and attorneys for others confirmed they were engaged in plea negotiations with the district attorney, heralding a potential conclusion to the case that drew more than 20,000 civil rights protesters to Jena in September.

The decision to reduce the charges against Bell was the latest turnabout for Walters, who had vowed to aggressively prosecute the six black youths for their roles in jumping Justin Barker as he emerged from the gymnasium at Jena High School on Dec. 4, 2006, and kicking him while he lay unconscious.

The incident capped months of unrest in the Louisiana town, set off when three white students hung nooses from a tree under which whites traditionally congregated at the high school after black students had sought permission to sit beneath its shade.

Black students and their parents regarded the noose incident as a hate crime and demanded that the white perpetrators be expelled, but school officials dismissed the incident as a prank and issued lesser punishments. A series of fights ensued between black and white youths.

Civil rights leaders asserted that the schools and courts in Jena treated black students more harshly than whites.

After the Jena story gained national attention last spring, Walters backed away from the attempted-murder charges and instead charged the six black teenagers with aggravated second-degree battery and conspiracy. He tried Bell on those charges as an adult in June and won a conviction, but a state appeals court reversed the verdict, saying Bell should have been prosecuted as a juvenile.

Walters said he hoped to have the remaining cases resolved "early next year."