This week, for the first time, I had the chance to speak with Heather Ellis.
Heather was not previously allowed to speak, since her attorney told her to remain silent. I can tell you that after speaking with Heather for nearly two hours, she is a fine young woman. She is NOT the kind of person who needed to spend any time in prison, and I am glad she took the plea deal from the prosecution. Let me explain a few facts about the case that you may not know:
1) Heather is not admitting guilt: Anyone familiar with the criminal justice system in America should understand that there are times when you have to plead in order to make something go away. There was no smoking gun implicating Heather Ellis; there was only the risk that the jury (which her high powered attorney, Scott Rosenblum, considered to be the worst jury he’d seen in 26 years of practice) was going to send her to prison or jail.
Like most of us, Heather is not a person who wants to go to jail for any significant period of time. I personally worried that she would be abused if left in the presence of the very officers who’d attacked her on the night of her arrest, not to mention the criminals she would be incarcerated with. If she were my daughter, I would have told her to take the plea.
The good thing was that her fight led the entire nation to talk about issues that we would never have discussed otherwise. Anyone who doesn’t agree with her decision needs to go put their own child on trial with up to 15 possible years in prison and see how much yapping you do then.
2) There is no evidence of an assault on an officer and she was not convicted of these felonies: According to Heather (whom I believe and I’ll tell you why in a second), there was one police officer who was dead set on the idea of pursuing and harassing her. He followed her closely out of the store, referring to her as a b*tch and a ho. He then told her to “go back to the ghetto.” That is when Heather turned and asked him why he was harassing her instead of chasing real criminals. That is when he said, “Because I want to harass your stupid a**.” That is also the officer who, without warning, tackled Heather and dragged her to the police car.
The reason Heather’s story is credible is because this officer had been fired from another job for sexual harassment and had lied on the witness stand in the past. Her attorney’s research uncovered the officer’s dirty past, and Heather discussed this issue in more detail in our conversation.
3) This was not a jury of her peers: Heather’s father, Pastor Nathaniel Ellis, told me that he had wanted to push the trial to the very end. What changed his mind, he said, was seeing his daughter break down in tears over the idea of going to jail or prison.
The truth was that this town has a history of sending black people to prison for long periods of time. (Some of them didn’t do very much to get there. This is known as the strictest county in Missouri and African-Americans are more likely than whites to be searched and stopped in this town.) Plus, it was almost certain that she was going to be convicted of the misdemeanors, which could carry up to six months in jail. Since cops tend to stick together (I know this well, since my father is a cop), they could not be certain that the jury was going to let her go on the misdemeanor counts.
But the most important point is that even if she did raise her voice (which I am not sure if she did), this does not warrant her facing prison or even jail time. It’s easy to get arrested for disturbing the peace, since raising your voice at another person can be described as disturbing the peace. I’ve disturbed someone else’s peace at least five times this week.
4) Wal-Mart engaged in some suspicious behavior: It came out in the trial that one of the Wal-Mart Asset Protection personnel had destroyed many of the tapes that could have implicated Wal-Mart employees in this case. To my knowledge, that is against the law and against store policy. Personally, I wonder if Wal-Mart was somehow concerned with keeping itself out of a lawsuit, since the videotape capturing the point where the police officers tackled Heather in the Wal-Mart parking lot JUST HAPPENED to go missing (I have friends who’ve worked for Wal-Mart’s corporate office, and they say that the store should have had far more camera angles than they presented in court).
Heather says that she wanted the world to see how the officers attacked her. She had blood in her coat pocket from the night of the incident. None of the officers had any documentation, pictures or hospital visits to prove that they’d been injured. The only person with documentation of an injury was Heather Ellis, who was being accused of attacking five big police officers.
The odd thing here is that some people refuse to believe the possibility that the officers lied. I’ve been around cops a long time; some of them lie like everyone else, and they’ve got the power to do it. Once I was lied to by a police officer, and I asked one of my friends on the police force why an officer would do that. He replied, “You were lied to by a cop. We do it all the time.”
5) This case is not a “yes” or “no” dichotomy: Many people seem to take the view that if Heather yelled at the clerk (which there is no reliable evidence that she did), she somehow deserves whatever punishment the state decides to throw at her.
That’s silly, since the punishment must fit the crime. I would not have intervened in this case if they were simply trying to charge her with misdemeanors. But the idea that they were threatening her with unsubstantiated felonies, to be tried by a small town jury reminds me of modern day Jim Crow. The felonies should never have been on the table in the first place, since they never occurred.
Also, Heather is filing a complaint against the officer who assaulted and verbally abused her. Signing the plea deal does not, in any way, mean that “she was guilty all along.” What it means is that she was not guilty of all of the horrible things they were accusing her of doing. At worst, the witnesses could only argue that she was guilty of raising her voice (but the witness testimony was incredibly problematic, and some even admitted that they’d been coached by the prosecutor).
I’ve spoken with Heather and I believe her. We have hundreds of pages of documentation on the case, and had access to the Wal-Mart surveillance video two weeks before cable news could get to it. I would not have put myself on the line if I did not believe in her case. The only important question here is whether or not Heather Ellis deserved to be threatened with prison time and the answer is a resounding “NO.” If you have somehow convinced yourself that this woman should be in prison, you need to check yourself and go get a little bit of education.
The interview is here if you want to listen to it. You can get more information at TheHeatherEllisCase.com. We are going to file our petition, anecdotal evidence and statistical data with the Attorney General’s Office and keep pushing for a federal investigation. We are also going to move forward with the case of Rodney Stanberry, a man who is serving the 13th year of a 20-year sentence for a crime that he did not commit. The evidence in this case is overwhelming. I’ll keep you posted.