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Federal officials berated over Jena Six case

House Democrats say Justice Dept. should have acted

The Rev. Al Sharpton (left), with Martin Luther King III, testified at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the case of six black teenagers charged in the beating of a white student. The Rev. Al Sharpton (left), with Martin Luther King III, testified at a House Judiciary Committee hearing on the case of six black teenagers charged in the beating of a white student. (Susan Walsh/Associated Press)

WASHINGTON - Democratic lawmakers denounced federal authorities yesterday for not intervening in the Jena Six case, citing racist noose-hanging incidents far beyond the small Louisiana town where a school attack garnered national attention.

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing with federal officials and community activists examining the case of the six black teenagers charged in the beating of a white student. The assault happened after nooses were hung from a tree on a high school campus, a symbol of the lynching violence of the segregation era.

Democratic lawmakers, many of them black, blasted federal authorities for staying out of the local prosecutor's cases against the six, particularly that against Mychal Bell, who is in jail after a judge decided he violated the terms of his probation for a previous conviction.

"Shame on you," Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, Democrat of Texas, said to Justice Department officials, directing most of her fury at Donald Washington, the US attorney for Louisiana's western district. Washington is the first black person to hold that position.

"As a parent, I'm on the verge of tears," Jackson Lee said.

"Why didn't you intervene?" she asked repeatedly, raising her voice and jabbing her finger in the air as some in the audience began to applaud.

John Conyers Jr., a Michigan Democrat and the committee chairman, called for quiet before Washington spoke.

"I was also offended; I, too, am an African-American," Washington told the panel. "I did intervene, I did engage the district attorney. At the end of the day, there are only certain things that the United States attorney can do."

Following that exchange, Conyers said he had invited the local district attorney, Reed Walters, to testify, but he declined. At that, some in the audience yelled out, "Subpoena him!"

Since the Jena case made headlines, there have been a number of other nooses found in high-profile incidents around the country: in a black Coast Guard cadet's bag, on a Maryland college campus, and, last week, on the office door of a black professor at Columbia University in New York.

The Department of Justice has created a task force to handle noose-hanging investigations in five states. It investigated the Jena matter but decided not to prosecute because the federal government typically does not bring hate crimes charges against juveniles, Washington said.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist based in New York, said there was unfairness in a criminal justice system that declined to charge white students for a hate crime because they are minors, but initially chose to charge the six teens in the beating case as adults.

"These nooses were hung over a year ago, sir, so I know that the wheels of justice turn slow, but they seem to be at a standstill," said Sharpton. "That's why we're seeing nooses all over America."

The senior Republican on the panel, Lamar Smith of Texas, said, "more than anything what we need is an effort to reduce racial tension. . . . What we do not need is stoking racial resentment."

Last week Bell was sentenced to 18 months in jail after a judge determined he violated the terms of his probation for a previous conviction.

Racial tensions began rising in Jena in August 2006 after a black student sat under a tree known as a gathering spot for white students. Three white students later hung nooses from the tree. They were suspended by the school but not prosecuted.

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