From Defendant to Defender: Theo Shaw, Once Almost Railroaded by the Justice System as One of the Jena 6, Is Now Officially a Lawyer

Theo Shaw, standing outside the Louisiana Supreme Court where he clerked for the chief justice, in late 2018.
Theo Shaw, standing outside the Louisiana Supreme Court where he clerked for the chief justice, in late 2018.
Photo: Associated Press

A Louisiana man whose life was almost thrown away by the criminal justice system when he was overcharged in a case that came to be known as the “Jena 6” is now officially a lawyer.


Theo Shaw was sworn in to the bar of the District of Columbia on Friday, according to the New Orleans Times Picayune. Bernette Johnson, chief justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, administered the oath inside the courthouse as friends and supporters looked on.

Friday’s swearing-in was the culmination of a long road for Shaw.

Shaw, along with five other black teenage boys, became media sensations after they were charged in 2006 with attempted murder after getting into a fight with a young white man at their high school in the town of Jena, La. Supporters said the six young men were being overcharged, and noted that the fight came after a series of racially charged incidents at the school, including the hanging of nooses from a tree on the campus.

However, Shaw and the others faced charges as serious as attempted murder, for which conviction would have carried a sentence of as much as 50 years in prison.

Shaw, who maintained he was innocent of the charges, at the age of 17 spent seven months in jail awaiting trial and unable to make bail, as the Jackson, Ms., Clarion Ledger explains, but fortunately for Shaw and the others, media exposure put the case in the national spotlight, with thousands converging on Jena to protest the boys’ treatment.

The felony attempted murder charge against Shaw was lowered to a misdemeanor simple battery charge. Shaw pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor, and then with the additional help of attorneys had his record expunged.

He eventually went on to study law at the University of Washington on a full scholarship, and gave the commencement address. He clerked for Justice Johnson of the Supreme Court of Louisiana and recently passed the bar.


His experience as one of the Jena 6 definitely has influenced his career choice, as he told the Clarion Ledger:

“I think when you’ve been as close to the system as I’ve been, as far as being in jail, and being in jail all day talking with people, being there when people are crying — grown men, kids ... I think it’s hard not to care when you’ve been as close as I’ve been,” he said.



I’m going to hope that his experience, skills, and mind let him carry the baton from Damon Keith, a pivotal black attorney and judge, who recently passed