ACLU Honors Regina Kelly, Plaintiff In Landmark Civil Rights Case, With Baldwin Medal Of Liberty Award

October 24, 2009 12:00 am

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Award-Winning Actress Alfre Woodard, Civil Rights Groups and ACLU Members And Staff Join to Recognize Kelly’s Outstanding Contributions at Special Ceremony in New York City

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Actress Alfre Woodard (right) presented Regina Kelly with the Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty Award.

NEW YORK – In a special ceremony on Saturday evening, the American Civil Liberties Union presented the Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty award to Regina Kelly, an African-American single mother of four who, based on an unreliable informant’s false information, was arrested in a military-style drug raid for felony cocaine distribution. Refusing to plead guilty, Kelly fought the charges, resulting in a significant change in Texas law whereby cases can no longer be prosecuted based solely on the claims of a single confidential informant.

The award is the one of the highest honors in the country for people dedicated to defending the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

“Regina Kelly is a real life hero, an ordinary American who took extraordinary risks to fight for the values that make this country great,” said Susan Herman, President of the ACLU. “Through her courage, she transformed a personal injustice into an opportunity for community empowerment and critically-needed reform within the Texas criminal justice system. She continues to inspire others to stand up for our fundamental rights long after her legal case is over.”

Excessive paramilitary drug “sweeps” by an out-of-control narcotics task force led to the arrest of almost 15 percent of the young African-American men in the small town of Hearne, Texas in 2000. The busts were based solely on the uncorroborated word of a single, drug-addicted, mentally ill confidential informant coerced by police. Kelly was swept up in the raids and, like other innocent people arrested, faced trumped-up drug charges designed to illicit guilty pleas. Many innocent individuals pled guilty to lesser charges rather than face decades behind bars and risk trial before mostly white Texas juries. Kelly, however, refused to plead guilty despite pressure from her court-appointed attorney at the time and others in the community.

The ACLU represented Kelly and others in a successful civil rights lawsuit, Kelly v. Paschall, against the Robertson County, Texas District Attorney and the local narcotics task force after evidence of police and prosecutor corruption and racist intent surfaced. Eventually, the charges against her were dropped.

“I thought about my daughters and what kind of example I would be setting for them if I just rolled over and pled guilty to something I didn’t do,” recalled Kelly. “These kinds of raids had been happening for a long time in my town, and someone had to stand up for the hope that our children would grow up in a better place.”

Kelly testified before the Texas legislature, urging passage of legislation to create greater safeguards against unreliable informant testimony and the unregulated practices of federally-funded regional narcotics task forces such as the one that led the drug “sweeps” in her case.

Her story is the subject of a recent film, “American Violet,” released earlier this year in theaters nationwide by Samuel Goldwyn Films and Uncommon Productions. The film debuted at the Telluride Film Festival and South by Southwest and features Academy Award nominees Alfre Woodard and Michael O’Keefe and actress Nicole Beharie, who portrayed Kelly in the movie.

“It has been an honor to help tell Regina’s story,” said Woodard, who played Kelly’s mother in the film and joined the ACLU in presenting the award. “She is an incredible and awe-inspiring woman whose commitment to justice shined through in even the darkest of moments. The odds against her and her family ever getting real justice seemed overwhelming and she could have ended the ordeal by settling for less, but she stood strong. Her dignified insistence that she be treated with the respect due to every human being shed light on everyday abuses that millions of Americans are exposed to simply because they are poor.”

“Regina’s case illustrates how our nation’s drug enforcement policies threaten core civil liberties and constitutional rights, effectively creating a ‘drug exception’ to the Bill of Rights,” added Graham Boyd, Director of the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project who represented Kelly. “Not only have our drug laws been disproportionately and unfairly enforced against people of color, the ‘war on drugs’ has given rise to an unprecedented incarceration boom and a host of perverse incentives to police. Ms. Kelly has played a critical role in educating the public about these unacceptable governmental abuses of power.”

The ACLU established the Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty award, named in honor of the ACLU’s principal founder, in 1989. The award is presented by the ACLU biannually to recognize an exceptional contribution to civil liberties in the United States.

Previous recipients of the Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty awards include Gordon Hirabayashi and the late Fred Korematsu, who fought against the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; journalist Anthony Lewis; Dolores Huerta, a champion of the rights of women, workers and immigrants; the five Judge Advocate General lawyers who represented the first round of defendants at Guantánamo Bay and challenged the flawed military commission process; and a group of Connecticut librarians and the president of a New York Internet service provider who stood up against the Patriot Act’s National Security Letters and refused to violate the privacy of their patrons and clients.

Kelly was joined by her four daughters and her mother at Saturday evening’s ceremony.

For more information about Regina Kelly, go to:

For more information about “American Violet,” go to:

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