News: Media Matters Talks about the Heather Ellis Case
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.