Heather Ellis Could Face Prison Time After Cutting the Line at Walmart

Heather Ellis could face 15 years for allegedly assaulting police officers at a Wal-MartCourtesy Your Black World/Getty Images
Heather Ellis could face up to 15 years in prison after allegedly assaulting police officers who asked her to leave a Wal-Mart store in Missouri when she cut a line to be with her cousin.

The prospect of spending 15 years in jail was probably the last thing on a Missouri woman's mind nearly three years ago when she switched checkout lines at a Walmart store.

But jail's a possibility for Heather Ellis, 24, who goes on trial today for charges stemming from a dispute at the Kennett, Mo., Walmart.

Ellis faces charges of disturbing the peace, trespassing, resisting arrest and assaulting police officers after she became "belligerent" when she was asked to leave the store Jan. 6, 2007, authorities say.

The schoolteacher could face 15 years in prison, if convicted.

But Ellis, who is black, has said that the charges are racially motivated, and that she has been unfairly targeted, which authorities deny.

In a letter she sent to the Missouri chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after the incident, Ellis said that she was trying to join her cousin in his checkout line at the time of the dispute, because his was moving faster than the one in which she was standing, according to The Associated Press.

Ellis wrote that she was "pushed by a white customer, hassled by store employees, called racial slurs and physically mistreated by Kennett police officers," according to the AP.

"What a shame the system can destroy a young person's future like this because of bad cops," Ellis wrote.

Repeated calls by ABC News to the state NAACP office were not returned Tuesday.

Although Ellis declined to speak with ABC News before today's trial, her father, the Rev. Nathaniel Ellis, called the trial a "big, racial discrimination cover-up."

Ellis said his daughter was at the store with her mother and cousin when a "Caucasian lady pushed her and accused her of butting into line.

"In a nutshell, [the altercation] was due to the incompetence of the cashier," Ellis said Monday, explaining that his daughter was trying to add six items to the conveyer belt on which her cousin's items rested.

But members of the Kennett Police Department who responded to the scene tell a very different story, and accused Ellis of "yelling and cursing" and hurling "verbal assaults" toward them, according to the probable cause affidavit filed in Dunklin County Circuit Court and obtained by ABC News.

Walmart Defers to Law Enforcement

Witnesses told authorities that instead of standing in line behind the other waiting customers, she "walked in front of the line, to the cash register attendant, apparently because she did not want to wait in line."

When the cashier began checking out someone in front of Ellis, and moving the individual's items forward on the conveyer belt, Ellis "began shoving the merchandize back down the conveyer belt," according to the court documents.

After she was asked to leave the store several times but refused to do so, officers began to arrest her. Ellis responded by "fighting the officer" while "yelling and cursing," according to the court documents, which referred to Ellis as "completely out of control."

In a written statement, a Walmart spokesman said, "Incidents involving our customers are unfortunate and we take them seriously.

"In this matter, there was a disturbance and law enforcement was contacted, in accordance with our normal procedures. The police then determined how to proceed."

Judge Joe Satterfield, who is presiding over the case, said that while the crimes Ellis is charged with are punishable for up to 15 years in prison, it is unlikely that, if she is convicted, she will be sentenced to that much time.

Asked about the racial undertones the case has taken on in the mostly white city of about 11,000 residents, Satterfield declined to discuss the specifics of the case, other than to note that the prosecutor first assigned to try the case, Stephen Sokoloff, recused himself.

Ellis' attorneys had filed a motion for Sokoloff to be removed from the case after a letter Sokoloff wrote in response to a local newspaper report about the trial, which was headlined, "Felony Charge for Cutting in Line While Black in Missouri," became public, according to published reports.

In the motion, the attorneys accused Sokoloff of "making extrajudicial comments that have a substantial likelihood of heightening public condemnation of the accused."

Prosecutor Recused Himself

Satterfield denied the motion but Sokoloff later stepped down on his own, telling the newspaper that he didn't want his statements to be a distraction. Cape Girardeau, Mo., prosecutor Morley Swingle is now trying the case.

Messages left for Sokoloff and Swingle were not immediately returned, although Sokoloff told the AP that he would have filed the charges regardless of Ellis' race.

Meanwhile, the New York-based Your Black World Coalition this week staged a rally that began outside the Kennett Walmart and traveled to the prosecutor's office in support of Ellis.

The protest was peaceful, according to media reports, but an earlier rally had been met with fliers reportedly distributed by the Ku Klux Klan, some reading, "The next visit will not be social."

As for Ellis, who is now a schoolteacher in Louisiana, her father said he still hoped that the case would be thrown out.

"This is a heartbreaking situation," he said.