American Violet: Drug War Injustice Hits the Big Screen

By Alan Bean 4-15-2009

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 10 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 20 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 the 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.

How much of this story will emerge from American Violet it is hard to say. But the clip included as part of Radley Balko's review suggests that American Violet gives the war on drugs the hardest Hollytwood celluloid hit it has sustained since Traffic.

Alan Bean is the Executive Director of Friends of Justice. Click here to read his blog.

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