This much isn’t in dispute: Heather Ellis cut in line at a Wal-Mart nearly three years ago.
But the accounts of what happened next vary, depending on whom you ask — and has divided this economically struggling Missouri town of 11,000 along racial lines.
Ellis, then a college student with no criminal history, said some white patrons shoved and hurled racial slurs at her when she switched checkout lines at Wal-Mart in January 2007.
Store employees refused to give her back her change and called police, she said.
And when she was taken outside to the parking lot, an officer allegedly told her to “Go back to the ghetto.” Another roughed her up, she said.
Witnesses and police offer a different take: Ellis was belligerent, shoving merchandise belonging to another customer to make way for hers on the conveyor belt, kicking one officer in the shin and splitting another’s lip.
A Dunklin County Circuit Court jury heard from the prosecution and defense as Ellis’ felony trial got under way Wednesday.
Ellis — who is charged with assaulting police officers, resisting arrest and disturbing the peace — could face up to 15 years in prison if convicted.
A verdict could come as early as Thursday.
Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union and Southern Christian Leadership Conference said the case is indicative of racial bias in the town, where 13 percent of the population is African-American.
Kennett, the hometown of singer Sheryl Crow in the southeastern corner of Missouri, has struggled economically.
Black and Hispanic residents have long complained about the predominantly white police department unfairly profiling them during traffic stops.
When Ellis’ supporters held a peaceful rally in June, officers found business cards scattered along the route that read: “You have been paid a social visit by the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The next visit will not be social.”
During another rally Monday, a handful of opponents stood on the sidelines waving Confederate flags.
“I know it’s racism. It’s blatant, overt racism,” said Ellis’ father, the Rev. Nathaniel Ellis.
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