KENNETT, MO (KAIT) – Supporters from across the country converged on the Dunklin County Courthouse Monday to voice public outrage against the Kennett Police Department and Dunklin County Prosecutor's Office.
Heather Ellis, 24, cut in line at the Kennett Wal-Mart on January 6, 2007 and created a disturbance after police were called, court documents said. According to court filings, Ellis assaulted two white police officers who told her to leave the premises. She was arrested on two felony counts of assaulting a police officer and two misdemeanor violations.
Ellis, a black school teacher in Louisiana, was in college at the time of her arrest. She charges customers and police officers as being racially disingenuous.
"Heather Ellis is innocent of all bogus charges and I demand that all charges be dropped and her record be expunged," said Rev. Dr. Nathan Ellis, Heather's father. "My daughter Heather is not a Dr. Jeckle out of Mrs. Hyde. She is not the Freddy Kruger that they made her out to be."
Ellis is due in Dunklin County Circuit Court Wednesday to answer her charges. Her father said she has rejected a plea deal.
"This act of tyranny was an attempt to murder her personage with the use of a lethal pen and paper," said Ellis. "For her illegal arrest, she was accused of attacking five white police officers outside a Wal-Mart. Come on. Please, don't try to insult my intelligence."
A rally was held Monday afternoon in downtown Kennett. A crowd of roughly 200 people stood outside in the mist to witness what organizers named a call to action.
"We are here today because we believe in the constitution as well. It protects the individual from the persecution of the government," said Dr. Wilmer Leon. "From the persecution of the police, some of them, not all, some of them, and the prosecutor, Mr. Sokoloff and his henchman."
Dunklin County Prosecutor Stephen Sokoloff has stepped down from the case. He said claims he and members of the police department were racist have forced him to hand the case over to a special prosecutor.
"The fact that they've tried to make this case about me is one of the reasons that I decided to recuse myself and to put the focus back on her behavior, not on anything about me. That also eliminates any claims at any point in the future either on appeal or whatever in court, on that I'm some sort of biased or overreaching or over aggressive or that I've got some personal animosity towards Mrs. Ellis," said Sokoloff.
According to Sokoloff, who couldn't comment on the specifics of the case, he's seen no evidence that Ellis' claims of police mistreatment are true.
"Heather Ellis, the defendant, is charged with being at Wal-Mart, creating a disturbance there, being asked to leave and initially refusing to leave. The police were called and they escorted her out of the building. Again they asked her to leave, she refused to leave, they told her if she didn't leave then she'd be placed under arrest. She threatened one of the officers. At that point the officer advised that she was under arrest and grabbed her and she fought with them, struck one officer in the mouth and another one she kicked," said Sokoloff.
Monday, the crowd shouted chants of "No justice, no peace" and quotes from historical civil rights leaders. Some in the crowd accused Sokoloff as racist.
"This city is a racist and bigoted town," said Dr. Dwight Montgomery. "Mr. Sokoloff recused himself from the case, I believe, the SCLC believes he did that so that he could work in the background."
Region 8 News asked Sokoloff his views on claims he is racist.
"Somebody who believes something like that, they're going to believe that regardless of what the facts are. I think if you talked to people that know me and look at my record, you'll find that that's not correct," said Sokoloff.
Counter protestors also watched the march as it traveled down First Street. Counter protestors were holding Confederate flags with swastikas and skulls.
Law enforcement agencies from across the state increased patrols along the route. The Missouri State Highway Patrol had 25 officers on site along with the Kennett Police Department, Stoddard County Sheriff's Office, Dunklin County Sheriff's Office and U.S. Department of Justice.
Protestors said they didn't blame all police officers.
"I'm not quick to accuse cops of being racist. In fact, I have a lot of cop material in the Henry Louis Gates case and people got upset with me because I didn't immediately jump to the side of the African American," said Dr. Boyce Watkins, professor at Syracuse University. "We will be watching carefully. We will be pursuing this with the Justice Department of the State of Missouri. We will be calling Attorney General Eric Holder because the case is bigger than Heather Ellis and we know that."
An attorney who represented Shawn Bell's wife in a New York courtroom was also in Kennett. Bell was shot and killed by New York police officers the day before his wedding.
"I've been looking into some things around here and there's a smell to this area. There's a smell to Kennett and there's a smell to Missouri when it comes to police activity," said Downing. "This is part of a bigger problem that's going on here in the United States, a bigger problem that's going on in Missouri and a bigger problem that's going on right here in Kennett."
"We are confronted by what I call judicial racism, where men in public service sworn by an oath to serve and protect us like the police, instead abuse and misuse their authority," said Ellis. "To protect the viscous and beastly policemen who are criminals with a badge, and then threatens you for standing up for your rights."