NPR Story Inspires Hollywood Film

Filmmaker Bill Haney decided to make American Violet while he was driving home one afternoon in 2002. He was stuck in rush-hour traffic when he heard NPR correspondent Wade Goodwyn report the story of Regina Kelly. Haney was so moved by the story he turned it into a film. Goodwyn recalls his initial reporting and his more recent coverage of the movie's premiere in Regina Kelly's hometown of Hearne, Texas.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, can teaching empathy help stop the violence in schools. We'll talk to an educator who thinks it can. That's in just a few minutes. But first we want to talk to the NPR reporter whose reporting inspired the film "American Violet." Wade Goodwyn joins us now from Dallas. Welcome Wade, thank you.

WADE GOODWYN: Thank you.

MARTIN: How did you hear about the story in Hearne?

GOODWYN: Well I, you know, the story in Hearne followed upon the story in Tulia which I had covered. They both happened very close to the same time, Tulia happened first. So I had seen a different story, covered a different story about 46 people, most of them black, who had been arrested and charged with selling crack cocaine on the word of one gypsy undercover sheriff's deputy who turned out to be lying. And so when a second story like this came up I went to investigate.

MARTIN: Now what is it, what was the motivation here? I mean, in these drug raids dozens of innocent people were convicted - some of them spend quite a long time behind bars. And as you pointed out this all hinged on the testimony - some very untrustworthy individuals. What was the motivation for the DAs in both of these cases.

GOODWYN: Well, in Hearne the motivation was, this was part of the federal drug task force and, you know, Hearne was getting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the federal government for a drug task force. But they had to show results. So what they did was the district attorney handed a informant who had been on charges. A list of people that he wanted to make cases against. They put a wire on the informant and he went in to the Public Housing Project and supposedly bought drugs from, you know, 28 people.

And one corner of the public housing project was located about two blocks away from a school and this informant said that every drug deal he made was on that one far corner which doubled the penalties involved. And what was actually happening was they wired him up. He had a wire but you could never hear anything. He would put the wire down in the bushes and he would take the money that he was given to buy these drugs and he went bought drugs for himself.

MARTIN: No.

GOODWYN: And the one thing they could hear was a little scraping sound every once in a while. And what he was doing was taking his own crack cocaine and scraping some of it into bags of baking powder, so it would test positive. And he came back and said, he, you know, made cases against the list, which is not usually how things happened and, you know, the D.A. doesn't usually hand a list and say, let's go make cases against these people, but that's what happened here.

MARTIN: And the movie goes into the - why so many people pleaded guilty, even though they knew perfectly well that they had not done what they were accused of. But from your reporting, could you tell us how it was for these people? Why is it that they were so, not willing, but why they felt that they had to plead guilty, even though they knew they hadn't done anything wrong?

GOODWYN: Well because they had public defenders who were urging them to do this, who were saying the cases against them were strong. They were being offered probation, if they would plead guilty, I mean, the District Attorney just wanted the numbers. He didn't want long prison terms, but he would charge them with the possibility they could get 40 years in prison if they went to trial. You know, Regina Kelly was not the only one who fought. The son of a city councilman, a black city councilman in Hearne, was also arrested.

They hired a lawyer and that case went to trial. And when it did go to trial, the informant's testimony was so bad that the jury voted overwhelmingly to acquit. But lots of people had already pleaded guilty and, you know, the question was what about these people who pleaded guilty and the district attorney said, well they pleaded guilty, I mean, you know, we're not going to do anything about that.

MARTIN: But they did have to let them go eventually.

GOODWYN: Eventually the ACLU sued the, the district attorney, the federal drug taskforce. And the part of the settlement took years, five years I believe. But a part of the settlement of that suit was that those who were convicted were released and their convictions were wiped out.

MARTIN: Wade, we only have about 30 seconds left. But what was it like to go to the premiere? And is Regina Kelly still living in Hearne?

GOODWYN: She just moved to Houston. I think it just became too much for her to be there. The district attorney in Hearne is still the district attorney in Hearne. And you talked about that one scene with Alfre Woodard where she comes in with a baseball bat. It was interesting to watch this black community see itself on a Hollywood screen. And when Alfre Woodard jumped out, you know, from that bedroom with a baseball bat and threatened to knock the ex-husband's head off, about a hundred furious triumphant women, you know, came to their feet urging the grandmother, Alfre Woodard, to knock his head off. And I almost fell out of my chair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOODWYN: So this movie is a lot more than just about black and white.

MARTIN: I hear you, but I bet you there are other people who people wished maybe they knocked their heads off. But we've to leave it there. Wade Goodwyn is a correspondent for NPR. His reporting in 2002 on a case of Regina Kelly inspired the film "American Violet." He was kind enough to join us from his office in Dallas. If you'd like to hear his earlier reports about Hearne, Texas, you can go to the TELL ME MORE page at npr.org. Wade, thanks so much for joining us.

GOODWYN: It was my pleasure.

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