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Hunt County Drops Charge Against Ponder

Carmen Ponder and S. Lee Merritt in Dallas on June 13.
Mark Haslett
Carmen Ponder and S. Lee Merritt in Dallas on June 13.

Carmen Ponder, the Texas A&M University-Commerce student who was arrested by Commerce police during a controversial series of events on May 20, will not face any criminal charges as a result of the incident. Ponder's attorney, Dallas-based S. Lee Merritt, announced at a press conference this morning that Hunt County prosecutors will drop the case. Ponder had been charged with resisting or evading arrest or detention, a Class A misdemeanor.

The story of Ponder's arrest has received national attention due to allegations of racial elements in the incident. Ponder has described a road-rage confrontation in which the driver of a truck used profane and racially charged language during a verbal exchange in the parking lot of the Commerce Walmart. Merritt has claimed her arrest was racially motivated. Ponder is African-American, while the other participants in the incident, including the still-unnamed driver who was the other party in the road-rage episode, are white.

Ponder initially accused Commerce Chief of Police Kerry Crews of being the driver who confronted her, and it was that version of the story that Ponder posted on social media on May 24 and then went viral online, resulting in attention from across Texas and the nation. However, Ponder backed away from the claim that Crews was the driver, and on May 26, Merritt suggested on social media that the other driver was Michael Beane, a Commerce Independent School District board member. Neither Beane, Crews, other city officials, nor anyone else with knowledge of the incident has commented publicly on whether Beane was involved. Merritt has criticized city officials for not making the identity of the driver public.

Ponder has described the incident beginning when she, driving alone in her car, passed a black pickup truck that was driving erratically. Ponder said that the truck followed her to the parking lot of the Walmart, located at 2701 State Hwy. 50. Ponder said that a man got out of the truck and began yelling at her. An angry verbal exchange followed, Ponder said, which included the man from the truck calling her a "black b----" as she went into the Walmart.

Commerce City Manager Darrek Ferrell told KETR on May 26 that Crews, who was shopping at the Walmart while off duty and not in uniform, became involved in the incident. Ferrell said that while events were unfolding, the city's 911 emergency call service received calls reporting the incident from both Ponder and also one of the occupants of the black truck.

Ponder said that Crews ordered her to apologize to the driver of the truck. Neither Crews nor Commerce Police nor city officials have given publicly their account of the moments before Ponder's arrest. But the officer who responded to the call, Sgt. Kalei Beelitz, arrested Ponder, who was booked into the Hunt County Detention Center in Greenville, where she spent the night before being released on $1,000 bond on May 21.

At Tuesday's press conference, Merritt characterized the arrest by Commerce police, rather than the hateful language said to have been used by the driver of the truck, as the most troubling aspect of the incident.

"The idea that she was arrested for not apologizing to an irate motorist has been the most offensive aspect of this case from the beginning," Merritt said. "But we do appreciate that the City of Commerce and the county prosecutor's office has decided to do the right thing in dropping the charges."

"Her concern was never that she was called a bad name alone," Merritt said. "I mean, it's not nice, but it's also not any violation of the law. The bigotry wasn't the problem. The use of the institution of the justice system to put her in chains and then hold her in a cell as punishment for not being nice to a motorist is absurd." 

Ponder, who learned that the charge would be dropped only moments before the press conference began, expressed relief and satisfaction with the news.

"I'm very happy," Ponder said. "I did trust the law, and the law did come into play, it did show that I did not do anything wrong, and I'm happy about that."

City of Commerce officials have denied media requests for the written report and 911 call records relevant to the incident on the grounds that a criminal investigation is ongoing. As required by law, the city government has petitioned to the Texas Office of the Attorney General that those records be withheld while the investigation is active.

When asked about the identity of the driver who confronted Ponder, Merritt said that he expects that person's identity to be a matter of public knowledge soon.

"Luckily, the county prosecutor's office intends to turn that (information) over to her criminal attorney," Merritt said. "We have to check the rules on whether her criminal attorney can turn that over to my office, but it will certainly identify who the motorist was."

Merritt identified himself as Ponder's civil rights attorney, but not the attorney who would have handled Ponder's criminal defense, had the county pursued the misdemeanor charge.

Regarding the misidentification of Crews as the driver of the truck, Ponder and Merritt suggested that Ponder misinterpreted the words of a Commerce police officer who was referring to both Crews and the driver of the truck while gesturing to both Crews and the driver of the truck, who were standing next to each other.

Ponder said that she thought at the time that the person she was ordered to apologize to was the Commerce Chief of Police.

"I thought it was to the chief," Ponder said. "It was two main guys outside, and the main guy who was wearing black and showed me the badge said 'Do you know who this is? This is my chief and you need to apologize.'"

"It was pretty confusing for her," Merritt said. "The chief apparently was standing next to the person who used the racial slur. The officer motions in the direction of the chief and the person who made the slur and says 'That's the chief and you need to apologize.' Well, the assumption is, that's the chief and you're asking me to apologize to him."

Because local law enforcement were involved in the events of May 20, city officials approached the Texas Rangers about investigating the incident, Ferrell said. However, the Texas Rangers declined to investigate on the grounds that no local law enforcement officers have been accused of criminal violations, Ferrell said.

The city then sought the services of the Fort Worth-based law firm Lynn, Ross and Gannaway, whose retention by the city was announced on May 25. Attorney Julia Gannaway presented her initial findings to a closed session of the Commerce City Council on Friday, according to a city release sent to area news organizations late Monday afternoon.

The release described Gannaway corroborating Ferrell's May 26 statement to KETR that Crews was not the driver who confronted Ponder. Gannaway also told the council that Crews did not make any statements with racial content during the incident, the release said. Gannaway also told the council that she did not find any evidence that the arrest was racially motivated, the release said.

"Gannaway noted that although other aspects of the investigation should continue to be considered, it is conclusively established that Chief Crews is exonerated of any allegation of making any racial remarks to Ms. Ponder during the course of the incident on May 20," the release said. "While there may be additional items for consideration and possible recommended action, race-based claims will not be a factor."

The city's news release on Monday did say that "the City Council did spend several hours reviewing the incident in its totality. The City Manager is now working with Lynn, Ross and Gannaway to bring this issue to a resolution as quickly as possible."

Merritt responded to the city's news release Monday evening on Twitter.

"I'm afraid @CityofCommerce missed the point. Chief Crews directed the unlawful arrest of @CarmenSieraaa under unjustifiable circumstances," he posted. Merritt described Ponder's arrest as unconstitutional. "To be clear, we never expected the Gannaway investigation to unmask institutional racism in @CommercePD," he posted.

Ponder also posted on Twitter Monday evening.

"But....why was I arrested?" she posted.

At Tuesday's press conference, Merritt did not call for Crews' resignation or dismissal, but he did say that he wanted the city government to take some sort of remedial action as a result of the incident.

"I think that there needs to be some sort of reconciliation between (Crews') behavior and this outcome," Merritt said.  "There needs to be something. Initially, our knee-jerk response was, I don't see how someone who directs a young woman to go jail for failing to apologize to an irate motorist has the disposition necessary to be chief of police. If that's how he behaves in relatively mundane, non-hostile situations, how does he handle actual, deadly situations - how does he train his officers?"

Crews, 46, has been City of Commerce Chief of Police since 2003. The city's release on Monday mentioned that the Hunt County African-American Leadership Conference presented Crews with the Homeland Award and the MLK Lifetime Achievement Award during the 2017 Martin Luther King, Jr., Awards Ceremony.

Merritt expressed hope that the matter could be resolved to his client's satisfaction without any litigation.

"To the extent that we can work with the City of Commerce or their agents to reach a conclusion that is not litigation-based, we look forward to doing that," Merritt said.

Merritt specializes in cases involving African-Americans and law enforcement. Merritt is also representing the family of Jordan Edwards, the 15-year-old boy who was fatally shot by Balch Springs Police officer Roy Oliver on April 29.

Ponder is studying political science and paralegal studies and A&M-Commerce. Ponder has been an intern at the Hunt County District Attorney's Office since January 2017. Ponder was recognized as Miss Black Texas 2016.

As of late Tuesday afternoon, neither City of Commerce officials nor Gannaway's office had responded to requests for comment on the charge against Ponder being dropped.

Mark Haslett has served at KETR since 2013. Since then, the station's news operation has enjoyed an increase in listener engagement and audience metrics, as well recognition in the Texas AP Broadcasters awards.
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