Falsely playing 'race card' hurt everyone

Sunday, December 20, 2009

By Morley Swingle

From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

On a Saturday night in 2007 at the Walmart in Kennett, Mo., Heather Ellis went into an angry tirade in the checkout line, grabbed another customer's merchandise and pushed it away from the cash register, not just once, but four times.

When a manager told her to leave the store, she responded, "I'm not leaving and you can't make me." The police were called. They escorted her out of the store. Outside, she continued her angry rant. When an officer told her she would be arrested if she did not leave, she replied: "If you try to arrest me I'll kick your [derriere]."

She was arrested. True to her word, she kicked the arresting officer and smacked another in the mouth, drawing blood.

Most people, after behaving so badly, would issue a few apologies and accept the prosecutor's generous plea offer of probation to misdemeanor offenses. Instead, Ellis decided to claim to the national media that her arrest was based on "racism."

Her claim was bogus. By falsely playing "the race card" she hurt many people. Racism is evil and ugly. But making false claims of racism hurts everyone. Most of all, she hurt herself.

Dunklin County Prosecuting Attorney Steve Sokoloff, a respected prosecutor, made a reasonable plea offer: misdemeanor probation with no jail time. Had she taken it, nobody would have heard about her anger-management problems.

In fact, her short temper goes way back. Records from Caruthersville Public Schools in the case prepared for trial show she was written up on 17 separate occasions for disciplinary referrals, including two for fighting with other students, two for "defiance" to a teacher, two for cursing, two for threatening or verbal abuse of a teacher, one for intimidation of another student, one for pushing another student, seven for "gross disrespect" to teachers and one for "cheating, stealing and dishonesty." These records are one reason no character witness took the stand at the trial to say she never would do such a thing.

At the trial, her credibility was destroyed by an African-American doctor, called as a rebuttal witness by the prosecution. Ellis had testified to the jury that her wrists were bleeding profusely from the handcuffs and that she had bruises all over her face and neck. Not so, said the doctor, who confirmed that she did not have a single scratch on her body, and the only bruise was a slight one on her wrist.

She hurt her family by making the false allegations.

This ordeal must have been embarrassing for her family. Her father, a teacher and minister whose anger was fueled by Ellis' false accusations, unleashed a tirade at one of her prior lawyers, a respected criminal defense attorney from St. Louis, who ended up filing a motion to withdraw from her case because her father had threatened to "kick counsel's [derriere]."

She hurt the city of Kennett and Dunklin County.

Her claims of racism caused "talking heads" from various national talk shows, bloggers and civil rights organizations to pass along her false claims unchallenged. Kennett and its police department came across as some sort of racist Hooterville. Among the most hurtful claims was an allegation that Kennett was a hotbed of racists and skinheads who showed up at a parade to protest against her. In fact, a Missouri Highway patrolman testified at a pretrial hearing that the patrol had checked the license plates of the dozen or so "skinheads" who showed up for a parade in Kennett, and all but two were from Ohio or Kentucky. Ironically, the national media had drawn the racists to Kennett by trumpeting its supposed racism and then portrayed Kennett as racist because the skinheads were there.

She hurt the credibility of well-meaning individuals and organizations.

Good people who did not know Ellis made the mistake of believing her and passing along her hateful and false message of racism. By crying wolf, she hurt not just her own credibility, but also that of well-intentioned people who proved to be easily manipulated.

Her supporters also tried to hurt me. I was brought into the case just 10 days before the trial. After I was appointed, one national activist on CNN said that all you needed to know about the new prosecutor "is that he has a Confederate flag on the cover of a book he wrote." Is that all you need to know? It would be significant to know that the book, "The Gold of Cape Girardeau," was a Civil War novel. That's why it had the Union flag on the top of the cover and the Confederate flag on the bottom. It won the 2005 Governor's Book Award from the Missouri Humanities Council for its excellence in educating people about Missouri's history and culture. The award was presented to me by award-winning author and educator Dr. John Wright, an African-American who had very kind things to say about it. Perhaps it is significant that I have spent my career and life treating everyone the same, regardless of race.

But as so many people found out, if you stand up to Ellis, whether you are in line at Walmart or arresting her or prosecuting her, you are going to get slimed.

In the end, she pleaded guilty under oath to resisting arrest by force and to peace disturbance. She entered the plea while a jury led by an African-American foreperson was deliberating over her fate. She received probation and will serve four days in jail and receive anger management counseling. Her jail time began Saturday.

Morley Swingle is the prosecuting attorney of Cape Girardeau County.

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