Heather Ellis’ story tells us why the justice system is broken

OPINION - Heather Ellis' case is only a symptom of a larger, equally problematic issue.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

After a peculiar incident nearly three years ago, Heather Ellis is on the verge of becoming another African-American statistic in the criminal justice system. The confusion is over a trip to Wal-Mart and a simple misunderstanding. Heather’s story is a bit shocking and reflective of broader issues in our society.

Heather was shopping at a Wal-Mart in Kennett, MO with her cousin. The two were searching for the shortest line, so they split up. When Heather’s cousin found the shorter line, she joined him. That’s when things got strange.

Heather was accused by a Wal-Mart employee of cutting the line, and an argument ensued. This led to the manager and security guard being called, and ultimately police intervention. Somehow Heather, an honors student who has only gotten two traffic tickets her entire life, ended up being charged with disturbing the peace, trespassing and two counts of assaulting a police officer.

After Heather rejected his plea deal, prosecutor Stephen Sokoloff became set on pushing for a felony trial against her next month. The young college student faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted, in spite of the fact that she has a clean criminal record and a good reputation in the community.

Her family believes that the plea deal (a small misdemeanor count) was offered to keep them from suing the police department for arresting her without just cause or for police brutality. (Her father says that Heather’s knees and head were severely hurt from being slammed by the police officers.) With the pending felonies on her record, Heather is having a difficult time finding work and was not able to get into medical school. She has been scouring the country trying to bring attention to her situation, and says she didn’t take the plea deal because she did nothing wrong.

The Ku Klux Klan tried to intimidate Heather and her family when a rally was arranged to show support. Family and friends accuse the police department of witness and attorney intimidation. (All of the attorneys ran and hid after speaking with the prosecutor, who is apparently very powerful in this small town.) And Heather’s father told me that Wal-Mart refuses to release the surveillance tapes of the incident. He also argues that the prosecutor, Sokoloff, has told the family that they should have taken the plea offer because they “can never win in this town.”

Heather has found some help and support for her case. Thousands of people have signed the petition at SaveHeatherEllis.com and people are coming to her defense. But her case is only a symptom of a larger, equally problematic issue. I’ve spoken with people from Kennett, and while Heather’s case is certainly shocking; the truth is that it wasn’t the worst story I was told by local residents.

There is a consistent opinion among many African-American residents of Kennett that the prosecutor’s office has a habit of imposing disproportionately painful sentences on black people. People of the town have filed complaints to the U.S. Justice Department about prosecutorial misconduct, and many residents do not feel safe when dealing with police.

I am not accusing the prosecutor of any wrongdoing. But the questions that should be asked are quite clear. These are questions that can be asked in many communities across America, for these concerns are not unique:

1)What is the grievance procedure for citizens who feel that the prosecutor’s office and police department are working together in a corrupt manner? My father is a police officer, so I respect law enforcement. But the truth is that officers and prosecutors sometimes become tempted to protect one another at the expense of the general public.

2)What is the diversity on the police department in the town? Shouldn’t the percentage of African-Americans on the police force match the percentage of African-American residents in the community?

3)What about diversity of the prosecutor’s office? The same diversity of the police department should be represented by the prosecutor’s office as well.

4)How can African-American residents feel confident in a justice system that neither gives them a jury of their peers nor guarantees that their attorneys will be able to rise above pressure from the prosecutor’s office? A fundamental tenet of the American justice system is that every citizen is entitled to adequate representation. We all know that this doesn’t happen in poor and minority communities.

I am asking Chris Koster, the Attorney General for the State of Missouri, to thoroughly investigate this case, this town and this prosecutor. I am also asking the same from the Attorney General of the United States, Eric Holder. While this case may appear to be yet another version of the Jena 6, we have to realize that for every six injustices we see, there are 60,000 that we don’t.

The entire United States Criminal Justice system needs an overhaul. It is killing the futures of black children in outrageous proportions. After the president finishes dealing with health care, he might turn to prisons and courtrooms as a way to save more lives.