In July, I attended the Community-Oriented Defender Network Conference. Although several presentations were noteworthy, the passionate keynote address by Regina Kelly is one that stood out. Her battle with Robertson County District Attorney, John Paschall in Hearne, Texas has been memorialized in the film American Violet; to have her there speaking was like meeting Erin Brockovich or Karen Silkwood. Regina’s story about standing up to her small-town district attorney and all the power that he brought to bear against her is the type to inspire any of us in our darkest hour.
In 2000, Regina was arrested in a drug sweep initiated by a paid confidential informant (snitch) who had a known history of mental instability. The district attorney told him he needed to give up at least 20 people “to work off” a case of his own, because the office had received a large federal grant for drug enforcement and needed to generate arrests. So the informant simply pointed to 28 people, nearly all of whom lived in Regina’s housing project. The informant was found to have used baking soda and water to make fake crack cocaine to use as evidence in support of the cases he fabricated. In one case, a person he claimed to have sold drugs to was found to be in the hospital at the time.
Regina told the group that she was “lucky” to have a committed, feisty mother who was instrumental in her eventually being freed on bail, but she could not overlook the other women who weren’t as lucky. In particular, she told us the story of her cellmate who could not make bail, and ultimately took a guilty plea just to end her suffering in jail. Regina refused to plead guilty; she would not be pressured by anyone, not even her own lawyer, to take a deal.
Ultimately, the snitch’s lies were exposed, and all of the open cases were dismissed, including Regina’s. However, those who had taken pleas did not gain the dismissals that truth demanded. The way our criminal justice system works, their pleas were considered to be binding, in spite of the fact that they were innocent.
Regina stayed committed to seeking justice, and sued the district attorney in civil court. Her civil suit ultimately exposed the virulent racism and callous opportunism that motivated the district attorney, and forced a favorable settlement. We viewed a clip of a pivotal moment in American Violet, where Paschall’s daughter gave a videotaped interview regarding his racism. Paschall lost his composure during the viewing, confronting an African-American attorney who was conducting the questioning, saying essentially, “So what? Everyone is racist in this town.” Paschall settled the case, and the fifteen plaintiffs were vindicated, but that was not the moral of this story.
The public defenders at the conference were forced to contemplate their roles in a justice system, where someone like Regina can rightfully end up feeling that even her advocates were against her. From the beginning of the case, her public defender advised her to plead guilty, without investigating the case. She had no representation in family court, where Paschall attempted to have her children taken from her. If not for her extraordinary fortitude, she would have been like millions of people in this country who are forced to “take the deal” rather than fight.
Her story highlighted the fact that in a plea-based criminal justice system, facts matter less than situations: Her public defender was over-burdened and under-resourced, and the prosecutor had unchecked power, and a federal mandate to make arrests. Threatened with years of prison time, suffering in jail, taking a plea becomes the smart choice, in spite of being innocent.
Of course, the first question out of the crowd was: What happened to the district attorney? He is still in office. Elected, and re-elected by the voters in Robertson County. When everyone in the room groaned, Regina further saddened us by saying that he hadn’t changed one bit. Due to law enforcement harassment, she had been forced to move to Houston, only visiting her Hearne family in secret.
In spite of all that, her presentation was ultimately inspirational. Yes, injustices continue — in Hearne and all over — but so does her fight. Regina now travels the country telling her story to groups like the Community-Oriented Defender Network, so that those interested in justice system reforms can see the actual human costs of this assembly-line criminal justice system. Several attendees asked for her contact information, hoping to bring her to their offices, and many talked about how her presentation already had them thinking about how they would change their approach to their clients back at home.