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Dr Boyce: 15 Years for Cutting Line at Walmart?

by on October 12, 2009

by Dr. Boyce Watkins, Syracuse University, AOL Black Voices 

In case you haven’t heard, there is a young woman in Kennett, Missouri who has gone through one of our worst nightmares.  Three years ago, Heather Ellis was in a local Walmart shopping with her cousin.  The two cousins decided to go in separate directions to find the shortest line.  After seeing that her cousin’s line was shorter, Heather went to join him.  That’s when things got strange.

Heather was accused of cutting line and the security guard was notified.  According to Heather, she and her cousin repeatedly informed the guard that they were together, but that didn’t seem to matter.  The police affidavit claims that Ellis was loud, belligerent and cursing when she was told to leave the store. 

After police arrived, Ellis was taken to jail in front of her family.  Her aunt, Lily Blackmon, arrived on the scene after receiving a call from her son about the incident.  According to Blackmon, her niece’s head was being slammed against the police car and the officer only said “she cursed,” when asked why she was being treated so harshly.

Ellis was charged with disturbing the peace, trespassing, resisting arrest and two counts of assaulting a police officer.  The young college student was then offered a plea bargain from Dunklin County Prosecutor, Stephen Sokoloff.  The felony counts were reduced to one misdemeanor of disturbing the peace.  However, Heather’s aunt believes that the offer was made so the family would not sue the police department.

Heather refused to take the plea deal, since she says she’d be lying if she admitted to committing a crime that day.  Eleven months after the incident, the misdemeanor was surprisingly dropped.  While this might seem to be good news, it wasn’t.  The misdemeanors have been replaced by felony assault charges, carrying a maximum sentence of 15-years in prison.

Heather believes that the pending felonies have cost her two jobs and the chance to get into medical school.  She still refuses to sign the plea deal.  Either way, she has a reason to fight, and I want to fight with her.   Heather’s case speaks to all of us: most of us have jumped the line at Walmart to be with a relative, and most of us know what it’s like to experience police abuse of authority.   No matter how much cursing Heather might have done that day, she doesn’t deserve to go to prison.  Also, if the prosecutor can reduce major felonies to one tiny misdemeanor, he could have dropped all the charges and let this woman go on with her education.

 

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of The Your Black World Coalition.  To follow Dr Boyce on Twitter, please click here.

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