April 28, 2009

Profiling the Drug Wars

Wouldn't it be a drag to get arrested for something you did not do based solely on the word of a lying, mentally ill drug addict?

That's what happened to Regina Kelly in rural Hearne, Texas in 2000. Ensnared in a mass arrest of suspected drug dealers at her housing project, the young single mother was charged with selling drugs in a school zone. Despite her insistence that she was innocent, her court-appointed attorney pressured her to accept a plea bargain to avoid many years in prison and the loss of her children. With no criminal record and no drugs found on or near her, she refused.

Instead, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union she filed a class action suit, Regina Kelly v. John Paschall. Since the case settled four years ago, the local drug task force has been disbanded.

As it turns out, bogus statements by "snitches" trying to curry favor with police are a leading cause of wrongful convictions (along with faulty eyewitness evidence and wrongful confessions). In the U.S. Drug Wars, this especially affects those who, like Kelly, are poor and Black. Texas seems like an unlikely leader in the campaign to reform such practices. But, prompted by the Hearne case and another mass drug arrest the year before in Tulia, the Lone Star State became the first in the United States to enact legislation requiring that the statements of confidential informants be corroborated by other evidence.

The case was reported by PBS' cutting-edge Frontline back in June 2004; a similar documentary was made about the more infamous bust in Tulia, Texas. But now, a fictionalized version of Kelly's story is set to reach a broader, mainstream audience. Co-director Bill Haney says that when he heard about Kelly's case on National Public Radio as he was driving along, it so moved him that he pulled his car over to the side of the road and cried.

In American Violet, "Dee Roberts" (Nicole Beharie) is the plaintiff in a class-action case over racial discrimination in drug enforcement. Tim Blake Nelson plays David Cohen, the ACLU lawyer who sues racist district attorney Calvin Beckett (Michael O’Keefe) on her behalf.

Kelly says the film is "90 percent accurate." The depositions, the courtroom scene in which she fights to retain custody of her children, and many other scenes are word-for-word accounts.

"I'm hoping that somehow, this film is going to get the message out there for someone to look in on this town and other towns that go through the same thing that we go through," Kelly told the Chicago Tribune. "Because something has to happen, and this has to stop."

With this film, Kelly may get her wish. Like Clint Eastwood's magnificent The Changeling (see my review HERE), this tale of a defiant woman's struggle against corrupt law enforcement strikes a universal chord. But unlike The Changeling, American Violet also addresses present-day criminal justice themes of racial profiling and coerced plea bargaining.

Get out and catch it.

The L.A. Times has an informative review HERE. Grits for Breakfast has compiled a list of links to other media reviews. For more information on the true case, see Kelly's website. Or, you can watch Kelly on YouTube. My prior posts on confidential informants are HERE.

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