On April 17, Samuel Goldwyn Films will release AMERICAN VIOLET, a new film based on true events that occurred in a small Texas town. The film examines how drug laws and enforcement practices target African-Americans, and, how the justice system uses threats and intimidation to steer them towards guilty pleas, regardless of their innocence or the evidence against them. As the film points out, more than 95% of criminal convictions in this country are the result of plea-bargains, not jury trials. While the film is based on a specific case, the story it represents is hardly unique or isolated, and, the film’s release presents an exceptional opportunity to explore how the drug war has become the new Jim Crow.
AMERICAN VIOLET is inspired by the real life story of Regina Kelly, an African-American, single mother of four girls who was arrested in 2000 in a military-style drug raid. The raid resulted in the arrest of nearly 15% of the town’s young black male population for felony cocaine distribution. Kelly was innocent. Her name, along with the names of many others arrested (nearly all African-American), were given to police by a single, highly unreliable informant with personal reasons to antagonize her. Despite Kelly’s innocence, she was urged to plead guilty by her family and even her public defender so that she could return to her children and receive a minimal sentence. A felony conviction, however, would have resulted in the loss of her right to vote and the public assistance programs on which her family depended, not to mention the tainting of her personal reputation and her ability to obtain employment. She chose to maintain her plea of not guilty. The ACLU Drug Law Reform Project came on board to represent her.
In AMERICAN VIOLET, Kelly’s on-screen character is named Dee Roberts (played by newcomer Nicole Beharie) and the ACLU lawyer in the film is played by Tim Blake Nelson. Alfre Woodard, Charles Dutton, Will Patton, Michael O’Keefe and Xzibit also star. The town of Melody and certain other characters and events are fictitious.
Eventually, the charges against Kelly were dropped (as were the charges against most of the others arrested in the same drug raid due to the same informant’s lack of credibility). Yet, she was separated from her children while she was incarcerated, shamed in her small community by being labeled a drug dealer, fired from her job, and had difficulty obtaining employment thereafter; in short, her life was torn apart due to her arrest and her time in jail. Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU Drug Reform Project represented her in a lawsuit against the county and the District Attorney (among other parties), for damages, which resulted in a settlement.
More importantly, the case resulted in a change in Texas law, whereby now, cases cannot be prosecuted based solely on the claims of a single informant.
This film's subject crosses over into some of my own personal history. Not only did I work with a lot of folks from Hearne to help pass the corroboration legislation for undercover drug informants at the Texas Legislature in 2001, at one point excerpts from this blog were actually submitted as evidence in the civil case.
The film premiers tomorrow night at St. Mary's Church in Hearne, and though it's a bit last minute, I may try to drive up for the event, if only to see some familiar faces. James Ragland at the Dallas News has a column about the movie, and you can see the trailer here.
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