Swingle to prosecute Kennett Walmart case

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

KENNETT, Mo. -- The Dunklin County prosecuting attorney has stepped aside in a criminal case with racial overtones, and Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle has been appointed as special prosecutor.

Swingle has been asked to prosecute Kennett resident Heather Ellis. In an incident at the Kennett Walmart in 2007, Ellis was arrested and charged with two counts of felony assault on a law enforcement officer, a count of misdemeanor peace disturbance and a count of misdemeanor resisting arrest.

A scuffle broke out in a checkout line at the store after she was accused of cutting in line.

Ellis' attorney filed a motion Nov. 2 requesting Dunklin County Prosecuting Attorney Stephen Sokoloff to recuse himself from the case.

Sokoloff was accused by Ellis' lawyers of "making extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused."

On Thursday, Judge Joe Satterfield denied the request, saying there was no legal basis for it.

According to the defense motion, Sokoloff replied to a story about the case written by Michael I. Niman of Progressive Populist, a twice-monthly publication.

The article, "Felony charge for cutting in line while black in Missouri," tells Ellis' side of the story in which she claims to have been racially targeted by both Walmart employees and Kennett police officers. The story also accuses a police officer of intimidating her family with a Ku Klux Klan business card.

Sokoloff wrote a two-page letter in response to the article in which he accused Niman of having done no background research and spoke of his "disregard for objective facts and its reliance on biased and purposefully misleading statements and outright lies."

He also suggested that Niman speak with any of Ellis' three fired attorneys who withdrew following "threats from her family."

Sokoloff went on to say an officer allegedly received a split lip from a "punch thrown by the 'innocent' Ms. Ellis."

In his defense, Sokoloff said in a written statement that "over the last several months, the defendant and her supporters have made a concerted attempt, through the traditional media and the internet, to portray me as an overly aggressive and racially biased prosecutor."

"They have distorted the facts and my record to try to divert the public's attention from her conduct," Sokoloff alleged.

The prosecuting attorney also said his statements were in a private e-mail to the author of the article and were not public or intended for publication.

According to Sokoloff, the court found that the statements were properly made under the Missouri Supreme Court rules relating to pretrial publicity as it was made to correct misinformation disseminated by Ellis or others on her behalf.

Sokoloff said that after the decision he decided to recuse himself "to remove any possible basis for a claim of bias, either at trial or in any future appeal, and to refocus attention on the actual issues and facts of the case."

The trial is scheduled for 9 a.m. Nov. 18 before Satterfield.

Daily Dunklin Democrat managing editor Deana Coronado contributed to this report.

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