Find and follow us
Get our most popular stories once a week!
American Violet: Regina Kelly's Path to Justice
(Editor's Note: Last week American Violet made its highly anticipated Hollywood debut. The film tells the real life story of Regina Kelly and 25 other small-town black residents of Hearne, TX who were unlawfully targeted and arrested on drug charges.)
In 2000, Regina Kelly was taking her life to new heights. The single mother of four, she had recently earned her GED and looked forward to attending junior college. But on November 2, her life took a drastic turn after she was wrongfully arrested in a drug raid by the South Central Texas Regional Narcotics Task Force. Kelly was indicted by a Western Texas district court on charges of selling cocaine in a drug-free school zone. Nearly all of the 27 people arrested in the raid were like Kelly: black and living in low-income housing.
Despite weak evidence and no prior convictions on drug charges, Kelly's attorney suggested she plead guilty and take 10 years probation or face up to 99 years in prison. Ultimately, the ACLU took on Kelly's case (PDF). She was the lead plaintiff in a race discrimination lawsuit filed by the ACLU against John Paschall, District Attorney and former head of Hearne's anti-drug task force.
According to the ACLU, the raid, like others that occurred in poor black and brown Texas communities over 15 years, was based on the testimony of unreliable informants.
Regina Kelly, now 32, told WireTap about her turbulent life since winning the lawsuit.
You were young when this happened. What gave you the courage to reject the plea bargain deal?
It was my children for the most part. There was no way I was going to take a plea for something that I know in my heart I couldn't do. I wasn't going to hand over my freedom.
Were you concerned about losing your benefits, your job?
You lose [the] whole sensibility of your life as you know it. I had a very good job before all of this happened. I had just got my GED. I enrolled in junior college [and] I had just got out of an abusive relationship of five years. [The raid] took everything I worked so hard for to get back on my feet and feel confident about myself as a woman.
Were you able to finish community college?
I wasn't allowed to go to that college because they felt I was going to be a big time drug dealer on the campus.
In the film, Alfre Woodard's character didn't want her daughter to sue the DA. How did your decision to file a lawsuit impact the relationship between you and your mom?
I try to make everyone understand she was not about, "take the plea and do what they say." It was more her trying to protect me from going up against the DA because she knew what my life was going to be about [if I tried] to fight this powerful man.
Were you marked as the black sheep of the community?
That's exactly how it was. I can't even explain to you what my life was like in that community. It's so horrible and frustrating. That's the one thing that makes me mad. I gave my life up for this community and I don't feel respected for it.
Have people stopped talking to you?
It's like no one wants to deal with Regina. You don't want to be caught with trying to help Regina because you're going to have to deal with the same consequences I'm going through. My life is horrible [and] no one wants that and I don't wish that on anyone. At the same time, this is our community. When are we going to stand up and take it back?
What are some of things you've endured since the case?
Not being to able to work in the town [and] live peaceful[ly] with the police coming around [my] house all of the time. People breaking into my house and I can't get any help. My utility bill was always $1,800 a month. Everybody around me in a four-block radius is $200 to $300 a month.
You haven't worked since 2001 because no one in the town will hire you?
Were you ever afraid for your life?
Never. There was never a moment I felt like, "Okay, Regina. Stop, that's enough." I always had a sense of calm in me. I knew it was going to work out.
How long did you stay in Hearne after the case was over?
The case finished in 2005 and I recently moved about a month and a half ago.
What made you stay?
I couldn't just leave. That would be like handing it over to [the DA] and saying, "You won." No, you didn't win. I'm not going to let you run me out of my home. I'm here and I'm ready to go on my own.
Even though you won the suit, you wanted him removed from office?
Right. It's not going to stop. Even though we won the suit, they can continue to do this anytime they feel like it. So what have we accomplished?
Are the police still raiding the housing projects?
They don't do it all in a group because they're not allowed to have the task force anymore, but they do it individually.
Your daughters were little girls when the raid happened. How did they handle it?
The oldest is the one I had the problem with. She actually witnessed the raid while playing in the park. She saw [the police] coming out of big trucks, the helicopters, guns and handcuffs. She was frustrated I was gone out of her life. She wouldn't come see me in jail and wouldn't accept my phone calls or anything.
Your daughters are teenagers now. How are they?
They're doing great.
What do you do now as an activist?
I'm writing a book about everything that I've been through. I've been an activist since 2001 on this issue. I haven't gotten paid for anything that I've done. Now, it's time for me to come to reality because I don't have a job, I don't have income. I have a website (Reginakelly.com) where people can contact me [for] speaking engagements on these issues.
I heard your mom didn't know about the movie until the day it was screened in your hometown.
I didn't know how to go about telling my family that there's a movie being made... We're watching the movie and mom was like, "Regina? Girl?" [Laughter] And the strange thing about it is Alfre Woodard is her favorite actress. She still to this day can't believe it.
You're living in Houston now?
Yes, it so much more peaceful now. We're at the beginning of a new life right now.
You did a screening in Hearne at a church. I heard there were rumors of the KKK appearing and a lot of tension.
There was a lot of tension and because of all the threats people didn't know how it was going to turn out. We put out 450 chairs and that wasn't enough. People were so amazed.
And the Caucasian people said, "Oh my God, we didn't know [the DA] was like that." A lot of people wanted to stand up and do something. I just hope everybody continues to feel like that and not just let it die down.
What were some of the threats?
[That] whoever supported the film would be "dealt with."
This was reportedly coming from the DA's office?
What's next for you?
I want to remain an activist. That's something very important to me. This is just the beginning of everything. I really haven't lived. I've had nine years taken from my life. I just want to live. I want to be at peace.
Watch the official trailer: