WASHINGTON (NNPA) - Because of a trip to Walmart three years ago, Heather Ellis is now fighting for her life. The 24-year-old former college student is facing felony charges that could get her up to 15 years in prison after being arrested for an incident that stemmed from her cutting a line at a Walmart in Kennet, Mo.
The case, which goes to trial Nov. 18, is garnering national attention because of the racial underpinnings and perceived multiple injustices involved.
On Nov. 16, the Your Black World Coalition, NAACP, American Civil Liberties Union, National Action Network, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference plan to converge on the small town of Kennett to protest and heighten the publicity.
Here's what happened: On Jan. 6, 2007, Ellis and her cousin were sent on a midnight run to Walmart by her parents to pick up some items. With her cousin already standing in line near the register, Ellis tried to join him at the front of the line. That's when the clerk accused Ellis of cutting in front of other customers.
Customers behind objected and verbally accosted the then 21-year-old, according to Ellis' father Rev. Nathanial Ellis in an interview with the NNPA News Service. One White customer physically pushed the former college student. Ellis tried to explain that she was joining her cousin who was already in line and told the lady not to push her again. She was subsequently pushed again. The cashier would later refuse to ring Ellis up even after everybody else in line went through.
"The cashier stalled my daughter long enough for the night manager to come up," Rev. Ellis explained. "My daughter paid with cash but she asked my daughter for an I.D. [Heather] said that she didn't need an ID because she paid with cash."
Upon legal advice, his daughter has declined press interviews.
As Ellis and the cashier was going back and forth about the ID issue a Walmart night manager approached. She yelled frantically for Ellis to leave the store immediately before she called the police and had her removed for trespassing, Rev. Ellis recounted the story as told by his daughter.
Ellis did not leave right away because she was waiting for the change from her purchase. In the midst of the argument and the manager yelling, Rev. Ellis holds that the night manager then charged at Ellis over a remark his daughter made and a scuffle ensued. The police were called, which was according to store policy, according to Walmart.
"When there is a disturbance of this nature at one of our stores, our associates are encouraged to contact law enforcement and let the authorities determine how to proceed," said Walmart spokesperson Lorenzo Lopez.
The four police officers who responded escorted Ellis out of the store. Rev. Ellis alleges that the officers hurled racial insults at his daughter as she was exiting the premises and then once outside, arrested her for trespassing.
Officer A. W. Fisher allegedly grabbed Ellis violently once she spoke up about her treatment from the police.
After getting a call from Ellis' 15-year-old cousin that accompanied her, Ellis' aunt showed up to the scene to a brutal scene of multiple police officers wrestling her young niece to the ground.
"She said to my wife, 'Mama, they dragged me by my hair and slammed me into the metal door,'" Rev. Ellis recounts.
Rev. Ellis says that his daughter's wrists were bloody from being cuffed too tight and that she had injuries that required medical attention from being choked, dragged and wrestled.
Ellis was initially charged in 2007 with four misdemeanors, including assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, trespassing and destroying police property. The charges were subsequently dropped – or so the family thought.
"When we went they said the charges were no longer in the system. They threw it out. The secretary showed my wife that they threw out the charges and that they were no longer in the system," Rev. Ellis said. However, Ellis had refused to sign the plea bargain that had been offered.
Thinking that she was in the clear Ellis went back to school in New Orleans, where she was a student at Xavier University. A month later the Ellis family found out by a records check by a friend that a felony arrest warrant for Ellis had turned up.
The family says the prosecutor upgraded the misdemeanors to three Class C felonies because Ellis refused to accept a guilty plea deal.
The pending felony charges have cost Ellis job offers and a shot at going to medical school.
The community has expressed its outrage with rallies and protests, which led to threats from the Ku Klux Klan.
A police officer delivered a card to the family from the Klan and Heather's father believes that the officer's delivery of the card was part of a broader plot to intimidate the family.
"After the first march we had, a policeman in uniform in his car, who holds the rank of major, drove up to my sister-in-law's house and called her outside. He told her that he had something to give her. He gave it to her. She said, "'We're not intimidated. We will still march on.'" He just drove away laughing." He said that the officer also gave his other sister-in-law a card as well.
He said the brown cards with red writing read, "You've just been paid a social visit by the Ku Klux Klan. The next visit will not be social."
There haven't been any further threats since that day, he says.
The prosecutor on the case doubts Rev. Ellis' story.
"There were no threats by the Ku Klux Klan to the family," contends Stephen Sokoloff, Dunklin County prosecuting attorney in charge of prosecuting Heather's case. "Somebody threw some cards on the street where they were going to have a march. The police picked them up. The police major handed the card to one of the family members who he has known for 35 to 40 years and just told her that they found these cards on the street. It was just a matter to alert them because, quite frankly, if he hadn't I think there would've been a problem as well."
Kennett is a sleepy southeast Missouri town that rests in the state's conservative "Boothill" region. It has a White population of over 90 percent, and has a long history of racial injustice, according to civil rights advocates.
"I have spoken with the family and other residents of the Kennett community, and the truth is that there does not appear to be justice for African Americans in this town," said prominent Syracuse University professor Dr. Boyce Watkins in a press statement. "This requires that the prosecutor be made to realize that his power is not omnipotent and that he cannot destroy lives at his own discretion."
Dunklin, a rural county just four miles from the Arkansas border and where Kennett is located, was where then presidential candidate Barack Obama had one of his worst showings in the primaries.
"This young lady was going to go to medical school to be a doctor. She has never been in any trouble, said Rev. Jesse Bonner, president of the neighboring Sikeston, Mo. chapter of the NAACP. "I thought it was evident that [the NAACP] get involved in this because a lot of things of this sort have been going on in the 'Boothill' area of the state. It is real racial."
According to Rev. Ellis, the attorney that they first hired for Heather's case tried to talk their daughter into taking a plea deal offered by Sokoloff. But she refused. They say their former lawyer had close ties to the prosecutor and he didn't show that they had their daughter's best interests in mind.
"We found out later that he was friends with the prosecutor," Rev. Ellis said. "They used to play golf together. My wife asked him if there was a conflict of interest and he said no."
They fired him. They are on their third lawyer after their second one withdrew himself from the case over differences with the family on how Ellis should be represented.
Her current attorney is Scott Rosenblum, whose office did not respond to a request for an interview. Meanwhile, Rev. Ellis contends that Walmart or the prosecutor's release of the store's video of the incident would exonerate his daughter.
Sokoloff argued his opposite perspective in a letter to Buffalo State College journalism professor Michael Niman, who had written on the case for the Progressive Populist.
"Ms. Ellis can be very clearly seen in the video shoving the merchandise of the next customer in line back from the register and trying to place her own in front of it," Sokoloff wrote in his letter. "The video also clearly shows her cursing at the officers as they followed her out of the store, it also clearly shows that there was no excessive force used in the arrest and that Ms. Ellis was not lifted off the ground. Further despite your report that there were no injured victims, one officer sustained a split lip from a punch thrown by the 'innocent' Ms. Ellis and another bruised shin where she kicked him. Further, the E.R. records of Ms. Ellis' visit show no visible injuries. "
However, Sokoloff would not go into details about the case when reached by the NNPA News Service.
"I don't release evidence to the media," the prosecutor said by telephone about the contents of the video. "It's totally inappropriate and improper to be doing that. In fact, there are rules against that. I don't try my cases in the media. I don't think it's appropriate. I prefer to let the evidence speak for itself. Yes, the video will be played for the jury, of course."
John Chasnoff, program director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri, has seen the footage that Sokoloff filed as evidence. He, along with the Ellis family, said that the video shows nothing to support the prosecutor's charge.
"We see things that are emblematic in that part of the state," Chassnoff said. "We see a long history of racial tension. We're always interested in cases of police misconduct and this case fits that pattern of misconduct that we've seen around the country."
Sokoloff contends that the original misdemeanor charges were never dropped, contrary to what the Ellis family believed. He said that different facts about the case spread within the media and by Ellis advocates were products of "absolute lies and misinformation."
Sokoloff said that the charges were initially filed as misdemeanors and the plea offer Ellis refused involved a deferred prosecution on those charges. It would have resulted in a dismissal with informal supervision for a period of two years, after which, the charges would've been completely dismissed permanently.
"She fired her [first] lawyer, the second lawyer withdrew, she missed court appearances," he explained. "It became apparent to me that she was not taking the matter seriously. That's when we amended it to include the two felony assault on law enforcement charges."
Each felony charge carries a sentence of up to seven years of county jail time or a fine.
He said that the felony charges were there all along as far as the evidence was concerned but they were trying to get the case resolved without having to file those charges.
The prosecution says that police report states that one officer received a split lip and the other officer received a bruised shin.
"We're not talking about serious injuries here," he says about Heather's felony charge. "She is not charged with any serious assault. But they are felonies because they are police officers and they were performing their duty. Under Missouri law, that makes it an automatic felony," he explains.
Elliott Millner, a legal consultant with a Black news website, Your Black World, and co-organizer of an upcoming rally for Ellis, does not buy Sokoloff's explanation.
"That's not true because if assaulting an officer, no matter what happens, becomes an automatic felony then why is there misdemeanor assault of an officer? Why is there class A, B, C up to a felony assault of an officer? He has discretion as a prosecutor to look at the situation, look at the background, look at the person. It's excessive," Millner asserts.
Millner continues, "Even if you look at it color neutrally, a case where someone who has no prior record does that warrant her potentially getting sent to prison for however many years for a busted lip that they can't prove happened because there are no pictures of any busted lip? There is no evidence of any of that."
Sokoloff says he will try the case in court while Ellis' family is trying it in the media.
"I cannot begin to explain why this case has gotten so much media attention," Sokoloff said. "I am absolutely mystified other than the defendant seems to want to make it a big deal."
Ellis admits that they are using the media as a tool to get their story out but only because Americans everywhere need to hear what is happening in Kennett, he said.
"What we're disputing and alleging is that the assault against the police officers did not happen. If anyone was assaulted it was Heather Ellis," Millner said. "There were witnesses that observed the abuse that she received. These officers that claimed to sustain injuries did not have to get any medical [attention], Heather Ellis did. We're disputing the entire police version of events."
Miller said that Heather's case is just a catalyst for a longstanding pattern of racially-biased legal injustice that has been going on in that region for some time.
Sokoloff doesn't budge.
"Just because the defendant makes a big deal of the case isn't going to cause me dismiss the charges when there isn't a basis for it," Sokoloff said. "Quite frankly, the most time and effort that's been involved in this is the injury caused from the media."