Race and the Heather Ellis Case

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By Kamika Dunlap on November 16, 2009 1:40 PM

Hundreds of people will participate in a rally in Kennett Missouri today for Heather Ellis, a young black woman accused of cutting in line at Walmart.

The incident three years ago set off a racially charged dispute and now Ellis faces a trial that could send her to prison for 15 years.

The Associated Press reports that witnesses told authorities that Ellis cut in front of waiting customers at the Walmart in Kennett on Jan. 6, 2007 and became belligerent when confronted, according to court filings.

Ellis, a student in New Orleans at the time and contends she was joining her cousin whose checkout line was moving more quickly. In a written complaint to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Ellis claims she was pushed by white customers, hassled by Walmart employees, called racial slurs and physically mistreated by Kennett police officers.

The trial is set to begin on Wednesday in Syracuse New York. The case has garnered support from Civil Rights Activist Rev. Al Sharpton and Syracuse University Professor. Dr. Boyce Watkins.

Ellis, 24, is now a school teacher in Louisiana and engaged to a state trooper. She also is a minister's daughter with no criminal record.

Her case has received national attention and is at the center of extensive online protests.

Heather Ellis has said in interviews with the media that she feels trapped by "small-town politics" in Kennett, where her family lives. Law professionals say Kennett is known for having the strictest legal system in the state of Missouri.

Kennett is a town of made up of 11,000 residents, of which 1,500 are black. Community leaders worry that Ellis' case has resulted in unfair portrayals of the town as prejudiced.

Dunklin County Prosecutor Stephen Sokoloff said he would have filed charges regardless of the races of those involved. But last week, he took himself off the case, telling the press he hoped it would refocus attention on the facts. A special prosecutor from Cape Girardeau County was appointed.

Ellis and her lawyers decline to comment on the specifics of the case. She has previously rejected plea deals.

Now, after what was supposed to be simple shopping trip Heather Ellis faces charges of assaulting an officer, resisting arrest and disturbing the peace. Sadly, it could be up to 15 years before her next shopping spree.