The woman whose three-year-old line-cutting episode at a Wal-Mart store ignited a racial explosion in a small Missouri town has pleaded guilty to disturbing the peace and resisting arrest.
By pleading guilty to the two misdemeanors, Heather Ellis avoided a possible 15-year sentence if she had been convicted of assaulting a police officer, resisting arresting and disturbing the peace. Under the agreement, Ellis, a 24-year-old schoolteacher now living in Louisiana, must serve a year of unsupervised probation, attend an anger-management course and serve four days in jail before the end of the year. If Ellis stays trouble-free for a year, all charges will be sealed and the arrest will be expunged from her record.
Ellis, whose trial began in Dunklin County Circuit Court last week, accepted the plea deal after the court adjourned on Friday, saying that she was “taking responsibility for her actions and [hopes] that everyone else involved in the case will take responsibility for theirs." Earlier that morning, Ellis denied the charges against her.
In the eyes of many – including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the NAACP and other Black leaders – the case, which involved Ellis allegedly cutting in front of customers at a Wal-Mart store in January 2007, should never have been prosecuted. They contended that if Ellis, an African American, were White, the case never would have made it to trial.
Kennett is a small town in the southeastern tip of Missouri, just four miles east of Arkansas. It has a history of racial profiling and racist acts against Blacks and Latinos, according to ministers and local leaders. Those charges of racism were seemingly corroborated when a small group of protestors showed up last week outside the courthouse and waved Confederate flags and swastikas. During a demonstration supporting Ellis in June, police say they found business cards scattered about, reading: "You have been paid a social visit by the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The next visit will not be social."
Ellis, a college student at the time of the 2007 incident, said that she merely changed lines to join her cousin in a shorter line and was called racial slurs and shoved by customers. She said that the clerk refused to give her her change and called police. Ellis acknowledged pushing aside some customers’ items on the conveyor belt, but denied “going ballistic” and cursing at store workers and patrons who disapproved of her actions.
Ellis, who has no previous police record, is also accused of cursing at and fighting with police officers. But she said it was she who was victimized, and that a police officer even told her, "Look at this stupid bitch. Take your ass back to the ghetto." Another officer then grabbed her and “flung” her around like a rag doll, never telling her was being arrest, she alleged.
Ellis had been offered a plea deal before but rejected the idea, saying that she would not sign anything that forced her to admit to something she did not do.