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Regina Kelly’s Story

Regina Kelly’s story highlights the fact that in a plea-based criminal justice system, facts matter less than situations.

  • Bruce Reilly
August 3, 2012

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.