Heather Ellis of Kennett, Mo., has quite a story to tell. It all started nearly three years ago in a local Wal-Mart.
Ellis was shopping in the store with a cousin, and the two temporarily parted ways to find the shortest line. Seeing that the other line was moving faster, Ellis went to get in line with her cousin.
She was accused of cutting the line by a store employee, who then notified the security guard. According to Ellis, she was shoved by another customer, had her items pushed to the side and was shortchanged when she finally checked out. The police affidavit states that Ellis was belligerent, loud, abusive and cursing when she was told to leave the store by the assistant manager.
Ellis’ aunt, Lily Blackmon, received a frantic call from her son and claims that when she arrived, her daughter’s head was being repeatedly banged against the police car as she told officers that she wasn’t resisting arrest. Blackmon, who was a probation officer in the town for 11 years, asked the officers why her niece was getting such rough treatment.
"I said, ‘What is going on?’ And all [the officer] could say was, ‘She cursed,’" said Blackmon.
Ellis was charged with disturbing the peace, trespassing, resisting arrest and two counts of assaulting a police officer. She was then offered a plea deal by Dunklin County Prosecutor Stephen Sokoloff. The prosecutor offered to drop the felony counts to one misdemeanor of disturbing the peace, as long as Ellis signed the plea deal. Her aunt claims that the deal was offered so their family wouldn’t file a lawsuit.
Ellis refused to take the plea deal, claiming that she wasn’t willing to admit to something she didn’t do; however, 11 months later, the misdemeanor counts were dropped, which seemed to be good news. The good news, though, was replaced with something even more disturbing.
It turned out that the misdemeanor counts had been replaced by felonies. Ellis now faces 15 years in prison if convicted. When her aunt went to prosecutor Sokoloff to find out what happened, Sokoloff allegedly told her, "Mrs. Ellis, when you get through, I don’t care what you say. You may as well take my way out. My way was the plea bargain. If you don’t take that way, I can assure you, you’ll never win in here."
Ellis claims that her pending convictions have cost her two jobs and the chance to enter medical school, but she still refuses to sign the plea deal. Racism recently entered in to the story when Ellis was handed KKK cards from a Kennett police officer warning her about her actions. The cards stated, "You’ve just been paid a social visit by the Ku Klux Klan; the next visit will not be social." The officer claims that he only showed the family the cards to make them aware of the situation. Since that time, and after a dramatic plea for support, people have come to help Heather. The site www.SaveHeatherEllis.com has emerged, and her father appeared on CNN on the 15th of October to tell her story.
Dr. Towanna Freeman, a management consultant, argues that Walmart was to blame for the unfortunate sequence of events: "No matter what angle you take on this case, it all started when Walmart failed a valued customer and it’s Wal-Mart that owes Ms. Heather Ellis a written apology."
Dr. Freeman goes on to argue that Walmart should have cleared up the disturbance as soon as it occurred, rather than allowing it to get out of hand.
When it comes to the trial of Heather Ellis, the bottom line is this: This young woman’s future should not be in jeopardy over this incident. If the prosecutor’s office could drop significant felony counts down to one misdemeanor, then they can drop the charges altogether. This may also be a case of what I call, "You got the wrong black person syndrome," in which police treat a black suspect a certain way because they believe the person is either uneducated or without influence. Most cases of police abuse go unreported or without accountability by the police department. Once they found out that Ellis was a college student, this may have led to the surprisingly generous concessions made in the original plea deal. There appears to be a power trip in this case, in which the prosecutor (like the one in the Jena 6 case) seems to feel that he has the right to destroy this young woman’s life over an argument at Wal-Mart. I don’t think we should let that happen. Rev. Sharpton and I will have something interesting to talk about this week.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor at Syracuse University and the founder of the Your Black World Coalition.