Plea deal reached in Heather Ellis case

Friday, November 20, 2009 ~ Updated 1:14 AM

KENNETT, Mo. (AP) -- A black school teacher who claimed white police officers abused and assaulted her agreed Friday to a plea deal convicting her of resisting arrest and disturbing the peace.

Under the deal announced late Friday, 24-year-old Heather Ellis avoided a felony conviction for her part in the scuffle at a Wal-Mart store in the Southeast Missouri town of Kennett in January 2007.

The case drew national attention because it had racial overtones: Ellis is black and the customer she argued with, assistant store manager and police officers are white.

FILE - This Nov. 4, 2009 file photo shows Heather Ellis, left, arm-in-arm with her mother, Hester Ellis, exiting the Stoddard County Justice Center in Bloomfield, Mo. Testimony in the trial of Ellis, a black school teacher charged with assaulting police officers, resisting arrest and disturbing the peace at a Missouri store, concluded Friday with the defendant telling the jury that white police officers had attacked and abused her. (AP Photo/Corey Noles, Dexter Daily Statesman, File)

Ellis, a Kennett native who now teaches school in Louisiana, pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and peace disturbance. Prosecutor Morley Swingle dropped two felony counts of assault on a law officer.

Ellis will also be placed on unsupervised probation for a year, must serve four days of shock jail time and must attend at least two hours of anger management class. If she completes probation, her record will be wiped clean.

After the hearing, Ellis said it had been worth going to trial even though the plea deal was similar to one she had been offered before.

"I still think it's important my story got out," she said.

Swingle said he was pleased with the agreement and thought the penalty was fair -- there was never an intention to seek prison time for Ellis, he said.

As for Kennett, Swingle believes the town's reputation took an unfair hit. "This is not a racist environment," he told reporters, drawing loud boos from several black residents standing nearby.

Moments later, Dwight Montgomery, a civil rights leader from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Memphis, Tenn., accused Kennett police and other officials of bigotry.

"This is a terrible place," Montgomery said. "There's a lot of injustice here."

The issue of race was not prominently discussed in the trial, though in his closing statement, Swingle said Ellis and other defense witnesses were trying to portray Kennett, a town of 11,000 that is about 13 percent black, as "some racist Hooterville."

The case prompted rallies from Ellis' supporters and opponents. About 100 supporters rallied in Kennett on Monday; about three dozen counter-protesters gathered the same day, some showing swastikas or Confederate flags.

The situation arose nearly three years ago with a dispute over cutting in line. Ellis was then a 21-year-old college student home for Christmas break. Around 11 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2007, she and her 15-year-old cousin, David Taylor, went to Wal-Mart to pick up a handful of items.

When they got to the checkout line, aisle 13, it was moving slowly, Ellis testified. So she moved over to aisle 14 while Taylor remained in 13, to see which line would move faster. Soon, Taylor motioned for Ellis to come back to his line.

But when Ellis moved in front of customer Teresa Kinder, an argument began. Ellis admitted swiping Kinder's merchandise back four times while she tried to get her goods checked out.

An assistant manager and security guard soon arrived. The prosecution contended Ellis was belligerent and verbally abusive to Kinder, called the store staff names.

Ellis said Kinder shoved her and the assistant manager was rude. She denied making derogatory statements to store staff.

Police walked Ellis and her cousin from the store.

Ellis said Kennett officer Albert Fisher grabbed her by the back of the shoulder with such force that he ripped her leather jacket and swung her around. Other officers became involved and forced Ellis against the squad car, she said.

"It felt like I was being choked. My hair was being pulled," Ellis said. "I was saying, 'Help! Help! Somebody help me please Jesus.'"

Ellis' aunt testified that she heard police use racial slurs against her niece and saw her being handled roughly.

Fisher testified that Ellis had been belligerent, and that she kicked him and hit another officer as she was being arrested.

Ellis was taken to jail and released early the next morning.

Once released, she went to a hospital emergency room. Dr. Benjamin Mozie testified that Ellis told him she had been assaulted and complained of neck pain, wrist injuries and a headache.

Defense attorney Scott Rosenblum presented evidence that had been discovered only Friday morning, when Ellis saw the leather jacket for the first time since the incident. Inside one pocket were documents from police and the hospital. Both, Rosenblum said, had blood stains from injuries to Ellis' wrist or hand.

Under questioning from Swingle, Mozie said he saw no evidence of any injury that would lead to bleeding. He also saw no outward signs of neck injury, but said Ellis' wrists were bruised.

Heather Ellis enters the Dunklin County Courthouse in Kennett, Mo., flanked by reporters and cameras on the first day of her trial Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009.

Ellis teaches biology at a high school in Louisiana, where she is engaged to a state trooper. She is considering medical school.