LAW AND POPULAR CULTURE
American Violet (2008)
Dee Roberts (played by Nicole Beharie), is a 24-year-old African American woman who lives in the housing projects of a small Texas town with her mother, Alma (played by Alfre Woodard), and her four children. At the start of the movie, police conduct one of many military-style, racially motivated drug raids of their housing complex that have been occurring for many years. Shortly thereafter, Dee is arrested and roughly dragged by the police from the diner where she works as a waitress. She thought she was being taken into custody for not having paid hundreds of dollars in parking tickets. Much to her surprise, however, she is charged with distributing cocaine in a school zone, a serious felony. But Dee has no drug record. She was not carrying any drugs on her at the time of her arrest, nor were any drugs found in her home during the police raid. Yet, she is arrested and prosecuted as a drug dealer on the basis of false information provided by a confidential informant. The local and seemingly racist district attorney, Calvin Beckett (played by Michael O’Keffe), pushes ahead with the prosecution against Dee as part of his self-driven mission to round up “black druggies and hauling them off to jail—by any means necessary” (Ragland 2009, para. 8). Dee is faced with a difficult choice. If she agrees to plead guilty, she will not have to go to prison. Rather, in exchange for her plea, she would receive a 10-year suspended sentence with a small fi ne, allowing her to stay at home and raise her children. If, however, Dee rejects the plea offer, she risks a 16- to 25-year prison term and losing custody of her four kids. Dee’s court-appointed lawyer and her mother urge her to take the plea bargain. But Dee refuses to plead guilty to a crime she did not commit. Unlike most people in her situation, Dee eventually receives help from an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who ultimately is able to get the cocaine distribution charges dropped. This movie is based on actual events that occurred in Hearne, Texas to Ms. Regina Kelly (the person on whom the character of Dee Roberts is based) in 2000. Ms. Kelly’s high-profile case eventually resulted in Texas changing its criminal law so that “cases can no longer be prosecuted based solely on the claims of a single confidential informant” (Barnes 2009, para. 3). After you watch this movie, be prepared to answer the following questions:
1. In American Violet, the district attorney tells Dee, “If you don’t take the plea, we will prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.” Should prosecutors be able to use their power in this way? Is threatening a defendant with the most severe punishment possible if the defendant does not accept a plea a type of extortion? Explain your answer.
2. Dee is pressured by her lawyer and her family to enter a plea bargain even though she is not guilty. Although she fears the “jury trial penalty” that could land her in prison for up to 25 years, she refuses to cave into the pressure to plea. How often do you think wrongfully accused defendants who lack the resources to mount a solid legal defense accept a plea, even though they are not guilty, in order to avoid incarceration? Why do you think people would do this? Would you?
3. The drug raids in Hearne, Texas had been going on for years. Regina Kelly’s case brought them to national attention. Using what you learned in Chapter 12 about constitutional criminal procedure, critique the use of military-style drug sweeps of housing projects inhabited by the poor. Why do you think such raids occur? What are the effects on the justice system as a whole when local law enforcement officials conduct such raids?
4. In the real raids in Hearne, Texas, seven other defendants accepted the plea bargains that were offered to them. While the charges were dropped against Regina Kelly, the charges were never dismissed against those who pled guilty to avoid the risk of spending many years in prison (Watkins 2009). What do you think about this? Why?