How a checkout counter dispute turned into a felony assault case and what the entire episode says about Black life in America
(FinalCall.com) – While the preacher’s daughter and her supporters are pleased she avoided a long prison sentence on felony charges, they say it is ridiculous that she had to endure a court trial for supposedly cutting a checkout line in Wal-Mart, which led to charges she assaulted police officers in Kennett, Mo.
Both charges were proven untrue during a one-week trial that ended Nov. 20 with a settlement.
Under the deal, Ms. Ellis pled to two misdemeanor counts of trespassing and disturbing the peace and must serve four days in jail, but she was facing 15 years in prison. She accepted one year of unsupervised probation and two hours of anger management classes. Once the year is up, the charges will be sealed and the arrest removed from her record.
“That was not a plea because I was guilty. That was a plea using more of my brain than my heart. My heart was telling me, ‘Go ahead Heather. Just go ahead and stick into it.’ But no matter what anybody says, my brain told me, ‘They’re going to convict you. You’re going to sit in jail,’” Ms. Ellis told Dr. Boyce Watkins, a finance professor at Syracuse University, during a recent radio interview. Dr. Watkins was an early and vocal supporter of Ms. Ellis.
Ms. Ellis said it was hard sitting in the courtroom, watching jurors pass notes, laugh, sigh, and make motions to let her know they weren’t with her, but against her.
Any conviction would have jeopardized her ability to remain a high school teacher.
This deal allows her to discuss her ordeal, and breaks up her jail sentence over a one-year period.
“It was very important to me to go to the trial … my story would not have gotten out. Police still would have been walking around, elevated, and thinking that they were right just because of who they are. Everybody would have had their perceptions and nobody would have known the truth,” Ms. Ellis said.
Initially, Dr. Watkins thought there might have been more information about the incident that the public didn’t have, he found none.” It turned out that she’s as common as you or I. She’s not somebody who deserves to go to prison … It doesn’t sound like she did anything out of the ordinary,” he said. She isn’t the first nor last person to be mistreated this way in Kennett, added Dr. Watkins, who has called for a federal investigation into the justice system in Kennett. He has charged a pattern of excessive prosecution and imprisonment of Blacks in the area exists.
“They try to make it seem that the Black woman is always the most belligerent and these other things so they end up responding in a way that’s disproportionate, just as they do with Black boys in a lot of school systems. When Black boys act up, school officials call the police and they’re arrested and locked up, when they could have deescalated the situations by acting intelligently,” he said.
In a town like Kennett, disrespect for people of color really shows, Dr. Watkins continued. Ms. Ellis has been threatened by the Ku Klux Klan, according to reports, and before a rally in June; police said threatening letters were found along the route. Police also gave her a Klan calling card.
“No one was happy to see us march into town and I think that ultimately it’s up to all of us, especially Black men, to step up and support and protect Black women, particularly in this case with a woman whose future is under assault for a seemingly meaningless incident,” Dr. Watkins said.
“I’m not going to say in the case of Heather Ellis that she couldn’t have handled the situation better, but we know that in a fair justice system the punishment must fit the crime, and in this case, it’s ridiculous that this woman potentially must enter prison over something like this. If she was a frat member at a university, just acting wild over the weekend, nobody would even think of sending her to prison over something like that so that’s really where the injustice lies in this case,” Dr. Watkins argued.
The truth was that Teresa Kinder, who accused the 24-year-old of cutting line, shoved her first, which went unreported by the news media. She further admitted that Ms. Ellis and her cousin, David Taylor, were already in line in front of her. Also, Ms. Ellis said, under cross-examination, a host of witnesses and several of the officers testified that they had joint pre-trial meetings and interviews with prosecutors, and they reviewed the store surveillance tapes together.
Ms. Ellis said she found out later that the jury had acquitted her of the two felony counts of assaulting the police officers. Yet the jury would have convicted her of disturbing the peace by raising her voice. This conviction would have been very absurd, Dr. Watkins said, because people raise their voices every day–and especially since Ms. Kinder struck her, she had a right to defend herself.
“The judge had already told me that he was recommending jail time … I just knew the area I was working with. Anyway the Klan or the police officers have absolutely no problem driving up to your house and handing you a KKK card. I knew what area and situation I was dealing with,” Ms. Ellis said.
Attorney Barbara Ratliff, a Los Angeles-based reparations attorney and activist, said the case underscores the relationship between the police and Blacks, which includes a historical pattern of abuse in the criminal justice system and American institutions–including business, employment, education, health, housing, and media.
The “line cutting” incident may not have been racial, but rather a personal reaction to Ms. Ellis, however, the police presence escalated it to another level, said Atty. Ratliff. Ms. Ellis and all Black people become subject to racial profiling and the possibility of excessive force or death, Atty. Ratliff went on.
“It’s a precarious situation for a Black person in America, because when you leave your home, you really don’t know what’s going to happen to you between the time you leave, and if and when you come back,” added Atty. Ratliff. It all boils down to a belief, an assumption, that Blacks are more prone to be guilty of something, Atty. Ratliff said.
She feels that the problems persist in part because Blacks are in denial about an abusive relationship. Blacks still have to make these demands, but they also must do something to show dissatisfaction, Att. Ratliff added. Blacks need to stop spending money with White businesses until the problems are recognized and dealt with, she said.
One way is to boycott, but is the target Wal-Mart, the rude owners of a small Mexican store, or the overall system of racial oppression? she asked.
According to Dr. Watkins and Dr. Wilmer Leon, when the subject of boycotting Wal-Mart arose, so did silence from many national media outlets and organizations who had signed on to seek justice for Heather Ellis. Dr. Leon teaches political science at Howard University and was a strategic advisor to Ms. Ellis.
Dr. Leon feels the outcome absolutely could have been different had national organizations gotten on board, because they would have brought more national attention.
But some Black groups and media froze because of Wal-Mart’s financial contributions to organizations and agencies, he told The Final Call.
“When they sit back and they look at where their corporate sponsorship comes from, they have to weigh the dollars versus the people,” Dr. Leon said. He feels the plea deal was not optimal, but it’s the best one could expect, and people should not judge it.
“This really has very little to do with Heather Ellis and everything to do with the prosecutor Stephen Sokoloff using Heather and this incident to send a broader message to the broader Kennett African American community:’ You better understand your place. You better stay in your place. And if you don’t this is what we have for you,’” said Dr. Leon.
“This whole idea of a post-racial America, since the election of President Obama, that’s a fiction. That’s a fraud,” he added.