Theo Shaw was one of the six black students from Jena in central Louisiana who were arrested in 2006 and charged with attempted murder. Known as the “Jena Six”, the local prosecutor’s decision to charge them with attempted murder triggered a national outcry and outrage.
The case became a uniting point for the black community and raised questions about the injustices meted out to African Americans by the American Justice System.
Shaw was 17 then. He and the other five black teens were accused of beating up a white classmate at Louisiana’s Jena High School. Shaw spent seven months in jail awaiting trial in a case for which conviction would have meant doing as much as 50 years in prison.
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Shaw and four other members of the “Jena Six” eventually pleaded no contest to simple battery, a misdemeanor, in 2009, The Clarion Ledger reported. A defendant under this agreement does not admit guilt but does not offer a defense. They received unsupervised probation for seven days but no additional jail time.
Despite always maintaining his innocence, Shaw believed the no-contest plea presented him an opportunity to put everything behind and move on.
“Even though you may not be a bad person, you may not be a criminal, people can treat you and make you feel as if you are a degrading, violent person. And I think jail initially had that impact on me,” he said.
Shaw and Robert Bailey Jr. another member of the “Jena Six” combed through law books while in a jail cell for answers that could help them get out.
“We were looking for hope,” Shaw was quoted as saying in an article by Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). “We were looking to file anything we needed to file to get out.”
Shaw, per the article, started filing motions to lower his bail, which was his best chance of getting released. The bail ultimately reduced from $130,000 to $90,000 and the community came together to post bond, freeing him after seven months behind bars.
Shaw’s record was expunged with the help of attorneys. When he came out, Shaw did not allow the trauma of the awful experience of spending seven months in jail to send him on a downward spiral, rather he used it as a motivation to put himself in a position where he could help others avoid the sort of injustice that was perpetrated on him.
Shaw went back to school and finished high school. He went on to the University of Louisiana at Monroe, interned at the Innocence Project New Orleans during college, worked for the Southern Poverty Law Center for three years after college, before eventually studying law at the University of Washington on a full scholarship.
On Friday, April 29, 2019, Chief Justice Johnson administered Shaw’s oath of admission to the bar and he is now busy being a defendant.
“Any time I’m in a jail, any time … I have to write a motion for a client, I feel myself in that situation again, so I’m always thinking about my experience and what I went through in the system,” he said.