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Single Mom Overturns Unjust Arrest in 'American Violet'

In Texas six years ago, a young, single mother, wrongfully arrested, stood up against the injustice, fought the system …and won. A new feature film is based on her story. Here's a look at American Violet.

In the film her name is Dee Roberts. At 23 years old, the single mother is on the bottom rung of the economic ladder: barely scraping by on her waitress's salary and government welfare payments, living with her four daughters in a crowded, subsidized housing project in rural East Texas. Then, in November 2000 local law officers led by the powerful county prosecutor sweep her up in a massive raid - part of the so-called 'war on drugs.'

Stunned, Dee is locked away in jail to await trial because, under Texas law at the time, the prosecutor could bring charges with no evidence beyond the allegations of a single informant. She is given the option to plead guilty in return for a suspended sentence; but that would make her a convicted felon, ineligible for the government welfare and housing she needs for her family. The vast majority of suspects arrested in the drug raids were black and, threatened with long prison sentences if they refuse the plea bargains, few ever had their case heard by a jury. Those facts draw the attention of lawyers from the American Civil Liberties Union - the ACLU.

The actual events took place, not in fictitious Melody, but the real town of Hearne, Texas. The real woman is Regina Kelly.

"The film is 98% accurate," Kelly says. "So everything, no matter how hard it seems, is really true. A lot of the experiences in the film are really what I went through; and there was more that they could not put in."

Ms. Kelly says, as portrayed in the film by Alfre Woodard, even her mother pressured her to accept the plea bargain rather than risk retribution by the powerful prosecutor.

"There is no way possible I could live with myself taking a charge that I know, in my heart and my soul, that I did not do; and it was really just setting an example for my girls and my mom always taught me 'right is right and wrong is wrong,' so why would you plea to something that you know you didn't do?" she explains.

Screenwriter Bill Haney heard Regina Kelly's story six years ago in a public radio report. He traveled to Texas intending to make a documentary but, instead, decided it had the dramatic elements of, and could potentially reach a wider audience as, a narrative feature film.

"The first thing I want is for people to be dramatically engaged: for them to laugh, to cry, to feel moved to action …and at some core level to be inspired, as I have been, by the example of this amazing woman," Haney says. "There is something profoundly uplifting about an ordinary American who finds within herself the courage and character to do something extraordinary for her community and, ultimately to some extent, for all of us."

Director Tim Disney says the names and locations were changed in part to avoid backlash against the real people involved - (a futile effort, as it turns out; Regina Kelly and daughters recently moved away from Hearne because of community pressure). But Disney says the changes also serve another purpose.

"We don't try to hide the fact that it is based on what happened in Hearne, primarily; but we drew on elements from other cases and other situations," he explains. "This stuff is not unique to these rural towns in Texas. This happens all over the country and we thought there was always a risk that people would write it off and say 'oh, you know, it's Texas …that would never happen here.' That's not the case at all, so we tried to be expansive about it.

Nicole Beharie stars as Dee (the character based on Regina Kelly) and the talented young newcomer says it was impossible for her not to be moved by the drama of the true events.

"I hope that it affects other people in the same way that it affected me …that it's this sort of contagious thing that will go from person to person to person and then maybe it will stop happening,"Beharie says.

Regina Kelly won her civil rights lawsuit and Texas state law was changed as a result; but a year later voters re-elected the real prosecutor to another term in office.