Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Woman Faces Prison for Cutting Line

Les Smith
KENNETT, Missouri - The arrest of a young woman nearly three years ago continues to stir strong feelings in a small Missouri community. The felony trial of Heather Ellis will take place in Kennett, located about 110 miles north of Memphis, on November 18th. For the first time, Ellis' family is telling their side of a story.

It's a spur of the moment move many of us can readily admit we've done in our lives - go shopping with a partner or a relative and try to jump in with whoever manages to find the shortest line at the check-out. Heather Ellis thought it was that simple too, she just didn't know the price she'd have to pay.

Except for its warm recognition as the birthplace of entertainer Sheryl Crow, the small, rural, southeast Missouri community of Kennett in Dunklin County doesn't immediately strike a visitor as a place where big dreams flourish.

But, the lack of success stories produced in town, especially among its mere nine percent African-American population, didn't seem to stop another native daughter of Kennett from having her own sights set high. Heather Renae Ellis was a young woman well on the scholastic path to a promising career in her chosen field of medicine.

Her father, Pastor Nate Ellis, reflected, "She has been taught to love and do the right thing, to strive academically as well as spiritually."

However, nearly three agonizing years ago, the college student's simple late night trip with her fifteen year old cousin to pick up some items for her mother at the local Wal-Mart, set in motion what could prove to be for Heather Ellis the eventual death of her dream.

Ellis' mother laments, "It really hurts. Really bad. And it's been going on three years and it's still like yesterday."

Pastor Ellis adds, "That injustice could raise his head in such an overt way in which it has affected her life."

In January 2007, according to the first of two affidavits produced by Dunklin County authorities, Ellis and her cousin separately entered adjoining check-out lines. Ellis decided to move and join her cousin at the front of the other line because it was moving faster. But, a store employee accused Ellis of "cutting" ahead of other customers. A shift manager notified the store security guard, an off-duty Kennett Police officer.

Lily Blackmon, Ellis' aunt, picks up the story saying, "He got his radio because they kept saying, she's cut the line. Not saying my son is in line and they're together. And they're trying to explain. No, we're together. No, you cut line!"

It's here where the information contained in the probable cause affidavit submitted by one of the five Kennett Police officers called to the scene, and the account of what happened Ellis and her family allege, are presented in sharp contrast.

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, Blackmon says she arrived in time to witness her niece being brutalized by police during attempts to place her in a squad car.

Blackmon remembers, "She said 'I'm not resisting.' She was screaming and crying. They took her head and he bammed it on the back of that, on the back of that police car, and she said, 'I'm not resisting. Please stop!'"

Blackmon, who has worked for eleven years as a probation officer in town, knew at least one of the officers and she alleges she asked why her niece was receiving such rough treatment.

Blackmon continued, "I said, I cannot believe what I just saw. I said what is going on? And all he could say was she cursed."

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.

Blackmon explained, "The plea agreement says, if she signs the plea agreement, it would be dropped to one misdemeanor, peace disturbance. Assaulting, two felony assaulting officers and you gonna drop it to one peace. Because the bottom line, I won't sue."

Mrs. Ellis was asked, "You had actually put in papers to sue them?"
"We had never done any of that."

However, eleven months after her arrest and with her family alleging there was no written or verbal notification at all, the misdemeanor charges against Heather Ellis were suddenly dismissed. However,

the Ellis' family joy was short-lived. A friend of Heather's discovered some shocking news.

Blackmon relates, "He was running a record check. There was a warrant out there for her arrest. Dangerous felon assaulted officers. Dangerous!"

Mrs. Ellis says she went directly to prosecutor Sokoloff's office to find out why Heather now faced felony counts, that if convicted, could see her face fifteen years in prison.

She asserts, "I said why would you want to fight this young lady? You don't even know her. I mean we went in this conversation. '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.'"

As she approaches a trial date on November 18th, and despite reportedly losing two jobs and her chance to enter medical school because of the pending felonies on her previously unmarked record, Heather Ellis has continued to refuse to sign any plea bargain offered by Sokoloff's office.

FOX13 News twice attempted to meet with Sokoloff on our trip to Kennett. But, we were told he was in court and unavailable. However, in a September e-mail written by Sokoloff to the website mediastudy.com and supplied to FOX13 News, the prosecutor insists a store video, to be introduced at trial, allegedly clearly shows Ellis cursing at officers as they followed her out of the store and that there was no excessive force used by police in her arrest.

However, another Ellis aunt, Luetta Wright, says such an assertion is typical of Sokoloff.

"Stephen Sokoloff is not for the law. He's rewriting it as he goes and it is not for mankind."

Heather Ellis has found a teaching job in Louisiana, but in between, she and her family allege they have endured unexplained and frustrating continuances, the recusals of three previous judges from the case and the recent hiring of a fourth defense attorney since her arrest. The obvious question is, why go through all this? Why fight a fight you've been told you cannot win?

Mrs. Ellis firmly stated, "Character. Integrity. Honesty. You mean we steadily invested in our daughter to put her in prison for nothing? And the only way she can avoid prison is lie and say something that she didn't do."

Pastor Ellis concluded, "We must win. Because Dr. King said, an injustice anywhere is an injustice everywhere."