KENNETT— Testimony in the trial of a black school teacher charged with assaulting police officers, resisting arrest and disturbing the peace at a Missouri store concluded Friday with the defendant telling the jury that white police officers had attacked and abused her.
Heather Ellis, from Louisiana, is accused of cutting in line at the Kennett Walmart in southeast Missouri in January 2007, then becoming belligerent and eventually attacking officers called in to quell the scuffle. The 24-year-old Ellis could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted of the felony charges against her.
The racial overtones of the case have drawn national interest. The customer who has accused Ellis of pushing in, the assistant store manager and arresting officers are all white.
Police have said Ellis used obscene language and kicked and bit officers as they led her out of the store.
In nearly two hours of testimony, Ellis denied cursing or attacking anyone. Instead, she said it was police who assaulted her in the parking lot after she was led outside.
"It felt like I was being choked. My hair was being pulled," Ellis said. "I was saying, 'Help! Help! Somebody help me please Jesus.'"
Ellis was then a 21-year-old college student home for Christmas break. Around 11 p.m. on Jan. 6, 2007, she and her 15-year-old cousin, David Taylor, went to Walmart to pick up a handful of items — Lunchables, cake, a hair care product and a bottle of orange juice.
When they got to the checkout line, aisle 13, it was moving slowly, Ellis said. So she moved over to aisle 14 while Taylor remained in 13, to see which line would move faster. Soon, Taylor motioned for Ellis to come back to his line.
But when Ellis moved in front of customer Teresa Kinder, an argument began. Ellis admitted swiping Kinder's merchandise back four times while she tried to get her goods checked out.
An assistant manager and security guard soon arrived. The prosecution contended Ellis was belligerent and verbally abusive to Kinder, called the assistant manager an "uneducated Walmart worker" and the cashier a "gray-haired old lady."
Ellis said it was Kinder who shoved her, and the assistant store manager who was rude.
By the time Ellis checked out, police had arrived and walked Ellis and Taylor out of the store. While the scuffle was happening, Taylor had called his mother — Ellis' aunt, Lillie Blackmun. Blackmun testified that over the phone she could hear police using racial slurs against Ellis.
Blackmun said she arrived in the parking lot at about the time officers began using force on Ellis. Ellis said Kennett officer Albert Fisher grabbed her by the back of the shoulder with such force that he ripped her leather jacket and swung her around. Other officers became involved and forced Ellis against the squad car, she said.
She was taken to jail and released early the next morning.
Once released, she went to a hospital emergency room. Dr. Benjamin Mozie testified that Ellis told him she had been assaulted and complained of neck pain, wrist injuries and a headache.
Defense attorney Scott Rosenblum presented evidence that had been discovered only Friday morning, when Ellis saw the leather jacket for the first time since the incident. Inside one pocket were documents from police and the hospital. Both, Rosenblum said, had blood stains from injuries to Ellis' wrist or hand.
Under questioning from prosecutor Morley Swingle, Mozie said he saw no evidence of any injury that would lead to bleeding. He also saw no outward signs of neck injury, but said Ellis' wrists were bruised.
Closing statements were scheduled for Friday afternoon, and the case will go to the jury after that.
Ellis teaches biology at a high school in Louisiana, where she is engaged to a state trooper.
The case has caused strong feelings in Kennett, a mixed-race community of 11,000 residents in the Bootheel region of Missouri. A rally on Monday drew more than 100 people in support of Ellis, but also a few dozen counter-protesters, some holding swastikas or waving Confederate flags.