I have been actively involved in the fight for Heather Ellis, the 24-year old school teacher now facing up to 15-years in prison for cutting line at a local Wal-Mart. Although Heather has now reached a plea deal with prosecutors over her arrested, there are still questions that need to be answered. No, she was not charged with cutting in line, but it was the cashier’s reaction to the alleged line cut which led to the relevant sequence of events. Had the cashier been more professional and not refused to serve Heather, none of this would have happened (You hear that Walmart? Perhaps that’s why your attorneys are telling you to remain silent).
I have five simple questions about the trial of Heather Ellis:
1) If “no one was seriously injured,” why was she facing up to 15-years in prison?
In the opening statements of the trial, the prosecutor in the case, Morley Swingle (the dandy fellow with the Confederate flag on the cover of his book) stated that “There was no serious injury, but it did hurt,” when referring to the alleged assaults committed by Ms. Ellis. If no one was seriously injured, does that constitute a Class-C felony? This statement was quite telling when it comes to understanding the style of justice being administered in the Southeast Missouri area (which is why we are sending our reports to the Justice Department after the trial is over). Given that Ellis appears to have been the only person to go to the hospital after she allegedly beat down all of these great big men, it would seem to me that perhaps she might be the one who is able to file an assault charge against the officers. Additionally, the defense attorney on the case, Scott Rosenblum, presented evidence in court of there being blood in Heather Ellis’ jacket pocket from the night of the incident. This would be consistent with her claim to the doctor the next day that she was assaulted by the police.
Heather Ellis is facing 15-years in prison for allegedly cutting line at a Wal-Mart store in Missouri.
Heather Ellis is in trouble. The 24-year old preacher’s daughter has spent most of her life doing the right things: Going to college, getting ready for medical school and staying out of trouble. What Heather didn’t realize is that even when you do the right things, your margin of error as a person of color in America is virtually non-existent.
When I wrote my book, “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” the key point was that America’s justice system has a difficult time understanding that punishments must match the magnitude of the crime that has allegedly been committed. The actions that a “frat boy” can get away with 20 times during college can send an African American to prison for the next 20-years. America is a country that has, without question, consistently over-charged, over-searched, over-incarcerated and over-sentenced African Americans for the past 400 years of its existence.
Given its ugly past, the criminal justice system has very little credibility, and even police reports are subject to being questioned – especially in a town like Kennett, MO. My father’s a cop, so I know how all this works. Even when black men were lynched 100 years ago, there were always “witnesses” and police reports to say that he was a bad person. Fortunately, lynching does not occur anymore (although a black boy – Walter Currie Jr. – was burned alive by his white classmate in the same area as Heather), but the noose has been replaced with the long prison sentence as the most typical and most devastating form of punishment. As a result, black men and women are filling up America’s penitentiaries at an alarming rate, and it is destroying the core of the black family.
The Dunklin County prosecuting attorney has stepped aside in a criminal case with racial overtones, and Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle has been appointed as special prosecutor.
Swingle has been asked to prosecute Kennett resident Heather Ellis. In an incident at the Kennett Walmart in 2007, Ellis was arrested and charged with two counts of felony assault on a law enforcement officer, a count of misdemeanor peace disturbance and a count of misdemeanor resisting arrest.
A scuffle broke out in a checkout line at the store after she was accused of cutting in line.
Ellis’ attorney filed a motion Nov. 2 requesting Dunklin County Prosecuting Attorney Stephen Sokoloff to recuse himself from the case.
Sokoloff was accused by Ellis’ lawyers of "making extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused."
On Thursday, Judge Joe Satterfield denied the request, saying there was no legal basis for it.
According to the defense motion, Sokoloff replied to a story about the case written by Michael I. Niman of Progressive Populist, a twice-monthly publication.
The rally is on! Visit www.TheHeatherEllisCase.com for more information. Dr. Boyce Watkins and The Your Black World Coalition are organizing the rally, along with the NAACP, SCLC and ACLU. Come down to Kennett Missouri with us on March 16!
Just when you thought black celebrities didn’t care anymore, the "Bad Boy of Radio,"Michael Baisden announced today that he is going to give $5,000 to the legal defense fund of the family of Heather Ellis, a 24-year old black female college student who faces 15-years in prison after cutting in line at a Walmart.
One of the things that make America unique is its Constitution, specifically the Bill of Rights. In its original form, the Constitution did not include a list of basic civil liberties or guarantees to the individual. Many prominent Americans, including Thomas Jefferson insisted that a list of fundamental protections be included to restrain the national government from tampering with the fundamental rights and civil liberties of its citizens. The intent of the framers of the Constitution was to level the playing field. They felt it necessary to restrain the very powerful government, prosecutors, and police from arbitrary and capricious action against the less powerful individual. Over time these protections have been passed down to the state level.
The case of Heather Ellis is a perfect present day example of why individual American citizens need to be protected from over zealous capricious prosecutors and police. For a young woman to be facing up to fifteen years in prison for trespassing, disturbing the peace, and two felony counts of assaulting a police officer, all for allegedly cutting a check-out line at a Wal-Mart is unconscionable.
Editor’s Note: Watch Randi Kaye’s full report tonight on Anderson Cooper 360 at 10pm ET.
Randi Kaye| BIO
Is it a classic case of “he said, she said,” or is it a brutal case of racism? Whatever it is, it may land a Missouri woman, a preacher’s daughter who has never been in trouble with the law before, in jail.
It all apparently started at a Walmart store in Kennett, Missouri where according to police, customer Heather Ellis had cut in line to pay for her items. What followed is at the heart of a court case that may send Heather Ellis to jail for as many as 15 years!
Let me first say Ms. Ellis has pleaded not guilty. But here’s how police tell it: officers say they were called to the store after Ellis caused a “disturbance” at the cash register by “yelling and cursing.” Officers say when they tried to get her to leave the store, she turned and yelled at them, “I ain’t going nowhere until I get my (expletive) change back” but that even after she got her change, she continued to be “belligerent.” The lead officer says they tried to get her to remain calm and leave in a peaceful manner and told her they’d arrest her if she refused. That is when the lead officer says Ellis “issued a threat to assault” and said if the officer put their hands on her “she was going to beat my (expletive).” Well, it turned ugly according to police, who say she became “combative and began fighting.” The officers say Ellis “continued to fight, yell and curse” and was “completely out of control.” They say she “resisted arrest” and “stiffened her body” when they tried to put her in the police car. Read the full police report here.
Racial injustice rears its ugly head again, this time in rural Missouri, where heavy-handed prosecutor Stephen Sokoloff is threatening to impose a lengthy prison sentence on a woman after an altercation at a local Wal-Mart almost three years ago.
In January 2007, 20-year-old Heather Ellis, then a student at Xavier University, and her cousin David went to a Wal-Mart in Kennett, Missouri, near the Tennessee border, in an area commonly known as the Missouri Bootheel. Kennett, in rural and conservative Dunklin County, which boasts that it seceded from the Union during the Civil War, is overwhelmingly white.
At the check-out line, the pair split up in order to find the shortest line. When Ellis left her line to join her cousin at a shorter line, customers complained and a store employee accused her of cutting, at which point an argument ensued and a manager notified a security guard, an off-duty Kennett Police officer. The situation escalated from there:
In the Ellis version, she was shoved by another customer, had her items pushed aside by the clerk and then was short-changed when she finally was checked out. The police affidavit contends, at numerous times, Ellis became belligerent, loud, abusive and cursing when she was told to leave by the store’s assistant manager. Summoned by a frantic phone call from her son, as the pair walked out to the parking lot, [Ellis' aunt] Blackmon says she arrived in time to witness her niece being brutalized by police during attempts to place her in a squad car.
Ellis was charged with disturbing the peace, trespassing, resisting arrest and two counts of assaulting a police officer. Yet, curiously after being described in the police affidavit as "completely out of control" during her arrest, she was released to the custody of her parents to receive medical attention only 45 minutes after being jailed. However, her arrest triggered a whole series of problems. Although she returned to school in Louisiana, two months later, an attorney hired by the family tried to talk Heather into taking a plea deal offered by powerful Dunklin County Prosecutor, Stephen Sokoloff.