NEW ORLEANS (AP) – When a 17-year-old at the center of a civil rights controversy in a small Louisiana town left jail, he had a stranger to thank.

Dr. Stephen Ayers, who lives about 135 miles away, said he felt compelled to help the family of Mychal Bell by posting the teen’s bond and allowing him to go home for the first time in 10 months.

Bell is one of six black teenagers accused of beating a white classmate in the central Louisiana town of Jena, where more than 20,000 demonstrators gathered last week to protest what they perceive as differences in how black and white suspects are treated.

Ayers, 42, of Lake Charles in southwestern Louisiana, said Friday that he isn’t politically active and isn’t usually one to “get into things like this.” But then a patient whose feet hurt after the march gave him a report on the event, in which Ayers did not participate.

“I was concerned about what was going on up there and thought the district attorney was a bit harsh in his treatment of Mr. Bell,” said Ayers, who is black but added that his race was not his motivation. “I really thought it was overkill.”

Racial tensions began rising in August 2006 in Jena 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 but not prosecuted.

Bell was released from custody Thursday on $45,000 bail after District Attorney Reed Walters announced that he would abandon adult charges against him. Ayers posted $5,400, the required 12 percent bond set by a judge Thursday.

Bell’s first night back at home was good, but “I don’t think he slept very much,” said Melissa Bell, his mother, in an interview Friday with Associated Press Television News.

The Bells are just trying to get through everyday routines now that the teen is back home, she said.

“We’re just sitting around the house, trying to wash my car for me … get something to eat, go get him new clothes. He outgrew his clothes,” she said.

“We still got a long ways to go,” she said.

Bell was 16 when he and five other black Jena High School students were arrested in December and charged with kicking Justin Barker, a white student, after knocking him unconscious.

Five of the six students, including Bell, initially were charged with attempted murder, but the charges against Bell and three others later were reduced to aggravated second-degree battery. The case against the sixth youth is sealed in juvenile court.

Bell had faced as many as 15 years in prison on his battery conviction last month, but a state appeals court tossed the conviction out, ruling that juveniles can’t be tried as adults on battery charges.

The teen is due back in court Tuesday for the first hearing in his juvenile case. Meanwhile, one of Bell’s lawyers said she told him to start looking for a new school and possibly a new place to live.

The attorney, Carol Powell Lexing, said that leaving Jena, where his parents live, is for Bell’s “safety and welfare.”

“Right now, it’s not a good environment for him to be in,” she said, adding that Bell’s family members have received threatening letters.

Lexing, who called Ayers a “good Samaritan,” said she thanked the doctor over the phone. Many people offered to donate money for Bell’s bail, but Lexing said they accepted Ayers’ help because he and a friend, Lawrence Morrow, were willing to handle the logistics.

Morrow, a magazine publisher and host of local radio and television shows, met Lexing when he went to Jena for Thursday’s march. Morrow went home to Lake Charles with swollen feet, so he called his friend and family doctor for a prescription.

Ayers asked him about the march and offered to help Bell and his legal team. “He said, ‘Whatever the cost is, go get him out,”‘ Morrow recalled.

Ayers said he isn’t helping Bell because he thinks he is innocent.

“What he did was in no way right, and he should be punished for this,” he said. “We’re not condoning his behavior. We’re just saying he needs to be punished appropriately.”

AP-ES-09-28-07 2019EDT

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