Thursday, November 5, 2009

To Kill A Mockingbird

Kennett, Missouri: population 11,000. Kennett is a small town in Dunklin Couty, Missouri located in the very southeastern most tip of the state which sits at the intersection of Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky. This is the type of place most often referenced by some during the 2008 election as "real America" where "real Americans" (as opposed to the "fake" Americans, whoever they are) are God fearing, believe in the 2nd Amendment, and live by good-old-fashioned values. You know the place well; most folks are on a first-name basis with each other and their idea of a "wild time" tends to take place in the local bowling alley on Friday nights when Earl hits a perfect 300. In short, its America as America was intended...for some that is.

No small town, U.S.A. is complete without its own Walmart, and in that regard, Kennett is certainly no exception. At this particular Walmart, on January 6, 2007, a young Black preacher's daughter and college student by the name of Heather Ellis, along with her cousin, entered the store for a routine purchase - what happened next was anything but routine.

According to Ellis, she and her cousin entered separate check-out lines with the understanding that whoever reached their respective cashier first would take all the items for the two of them (this is what is known by Walmart veterans as the "divide and conquer" maneuver). According to Ellis, her cousin reached her respective cashier first, which prompted Ellis to bring her items over for check-out. According to the Police Report (oh did I mention there was a police report?), Ellis cut in line in front of other customers, which caused the cashier to call the police. Apparently cutting in line in Walmart is a major offense in Kennett, Missouri.

What happened next is unclear.

According to police, Heather Ellis became loud and belligerent, refusing to leave the line and even cursing at the police officers (yes I said officers, plural). According to Ellis, she and her 15-year-old cousin paid for their purchases but were then followed out to the parking lot by police where Ellis was confronted about the line incident and then arrested. According to police, Ellis cursed at the police and struck one of the officers all while resisting her arrest. According to Ellis, the police officers used racial insults, including the n-word, and forced Ellis to the ground, causing cuts and bruises to her body in addition to ramming her into a door at the police station, the result of which caused her to seek medical attention.

See CNN clip for more details:

Regardless of what happened, Heather Ellis now heads to court on November 18, 2009 where she faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted on the charges against her (disturbing the peace, resisting arrest, and assaulting an officer).

I'm torn on this one. Clearly, I was not there. Ellis could have gone off like the police and a few other witnesses say she did for all I know. On the other, maybe she didn't go off on the cops or become belligerent as accused. I do know one thing though, if history has taught us nothing else, it's that "Justice" has a funny way of being administered in the South. Just a few weeks ago a Judge in Louisiana refused to issue a marriage license to an interracial couple in the face of clear Supreme Court precedent preventing such an action by any state official. In Georgia a shop owner put up a sign using the N-word in reference to Obama in broad daylight and the local powers that be didn't really take any action against the guy. In Texas, two white men were released by the state prosecutor after dragging a black man from their pick up truck. And I don't even need to remind you about bang-up legal system in Jena, Louisiana.

All this to say, whenever I hear a case like this in "Real America" involving the so-called small town Southern justice system vs. the obviously-in-the-wrong minority individual, it raises an eyebrow with me to say the least. But perhaps, as a lawyer, I'm asking for too much when I expect people in positions of authority to follow the law and administer it fairly and equally to all people irrespective of their racial background. My bad.

Thoughts on this situation and on Southern "Justice" in general?
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