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American Violet: The true story of Regina Kelly

Written by ACLU on 17 April 2009.

American Violet Hearne Tulia“American Violet,” a film based on the racially charged drug war scandal that rocked the town of Hearne, Texas, several years ago, explores the devastating impact of America’s “war on drugs”. Directed by Tim Disney and written by Bill Haney, the film stars Alfre Woodard, Will Patton and Tim Blake Nelson. As recounted in the film, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit on behalf of 15 African American residents of Hearne who were indicted in November 2000 on drug charges after being rounded up in a series of unlawful paramilitary drug “sweeps.”

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These undercover drug busts, which led to the arrest of 15 percent of the African American men between the ages of 18 and 34 in Hearne, were uniformly undertaken based on the uncorroborated word of a single unreliable confidential informant coerced by police to make cases.

“The Hearne case is a poignant example of the incredible damage done by the so-called ‘war on drugs,’ and ‘American Violet’ highlights efforts we at the ACLU have made to bring justice to our nation’s drug policy,” said Graham Boyd, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Drug Law Reform Project. “Sadly, the systemic injustice exposed in the film continues to plague us to this day, its root causes in urgent need of reform.”

On an early November morning, while Dee works a shift at the local diner, the powerful local district attorney (Academy Award® nominee Michael O’Keefe) leads an extensive drug bust, sweeping her Arlington Springs housing project with aggressive military tactics. Police drag Dee from work in handcuffs, dumping her in the squalor of the women’s county prison. Indicted based on the uncorroborated word of a single and dubious police informant facing his own drug charges, Dee soon discovers she has been charged as a drug dealer.

Even though Dee has no prior drug record and no drugs were found on her in the raid or any subsequent searches, she is offered a hellish choice: plead guilty and go home as a convicted felon, with an attendant loss of her federal and state rights, or remain in prison and fight the charges, thus jeopardizing the custody of her children and risking a long prison sentence.

Despite the urgings of her mother (Academy Award® nominee Alfre Woodard), and with her freedom and the custody of her children at stake, she chooses to fight the district attorney and the unyielding criminal justice system he represents. Joined in an unlikely alliance with an ACLU attorney (Tim Blake Nelson) and former local narcotics officer (Will Patton), Dee risks everything in a battle that forever changes her life and the Texas justice system. AMERICAN VIOLET also stars Emmy Award® winner Charles S. Dutton and Xzibit.

American Violet, a Hollywood blockbuster that opens in theaters next week, tells the story of Regina Kelly, one of the people rounded up in a Tulia-style drug bust in Hearne, Texas almost ten years ago.

The Hearne tragedy would never have come to light without Tulia. Friends of Justice made seven trips to Hearne while the fight for justice was in full swing.  Hearne residents took note of our stand in Tulia and, after several innocent people had accepted plea bargains, one brave defendant decided to fight his case in court.

The Hearne bust featured Derrick Megress, a hapless crack addict who was threatened with jail time and prison rape if he refused to implicate twenty residents of a Hearne housing project.  Although Megress allegedly taped the drug deals he claimed to be making out of his living room, the tape quality was indecipherable.  And that for a very good reason: Megress later confessed that he had faked every single case in order to get the authorities off his back.

The Hearne victims reached out to the Texas ACLU just as the then-struggling organization was regaining its vigor.  Will Harrell (now Ombudsman for the Texas Youth Commission) had just signed on as Executive Director and, at Harrell’s behest, a guitar-playing lawyer named Jeff Frazier was scouring the state for drug war horror stories.  The New York Times had just run a successful story on Tulia and when Frazier tipped them off to the Hearne debacle the Gray Lady decided to take a chance.

Eventually, the ACLU’s Drug Policy Reform Project filed a civil suit on behalf of Regina Kelly.  A series of townhall meetings were held in a local church and, if the clip below is anything to go by, these meetings figure prominently in American Violet.  I was on hand for most of these gatherings, sometimes alone, sometimes in the company of one of the Tulia defendants.

During the 2001 legislative session, the ACLU (led by Kathy Mitchell and Scott “Grits” Henson) cobbled together a series of Hearne-Tulia bills designed to discourage a repeat of Heare-Tulia drug war overreach.  Eventually, thanks to some last-minute heroics from Will Herrell, a bill was passed calling for the corroboration of uncorroborated confidential informant testimony.

 That bill, incidentally, allowed Cynthia Barbare, a hardworking Dallas attorney, to prove that the drugs the Dallas DA’s office was using to prosecute her client were nothing but powdered sheetrock.

Tulia, Hearne and the Dallas Sheetroock scandal became the left-right-left combination that changed the rules of the drug war in the great state of Texas.