The family of a Berryville woman now serving a life sentence for conspiracy to sell crack cocaine says unethical conduct by her attorney, Paul Thomson, caused a series of events that that led to her sentence of life in prison plus 30 years. Thomson, a well-known local defense attorney and former Winchester Commonwealth’s Attorney, pleaded “not guilty” to charges of drug possession and witness tampering in US District Court in Harrisonburg in January.
“My mother wasn’t a saint and she had a drug problem” said Perry Davis, the woman’s son 28-year- old son. “But she’s a minor criminal who got life in prison plus 30 years for something that she wasn’t involved in. It just doesn’t make sense.” Kellam also has a 14-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter.
Davis’s mother, Charceil Kellam, 46, formerly of Berryville is currently serving a sentence in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut for conspiracy to distribute cocaine. Kellam’s mother, Vonceil Hill, said that Thomson’s recent arrest is part of a broader pattern of unethical behavior that contributed to Kellam’s severe sentence.
“This community has recently seen serious questions raised about attorney Paul Thomson” Hill said reading from a prepared statement. “However, one resident of this community, Charceil Kellam, has been aware of Attorney Thomson’s ethical problems for the last five years. In fact, Thomson was part of the web of injustice that has led to Ms. Kellam receiving an unjust federal sentence of life plus thirty years, instead of receiving treatment for her drug addiction or another response appropriate to the relatively minor and nonviolent drug offenses she was shown to have committed.”
Kellam’s troubles, which led to her eventual incarceration, began on the night of April 4, 2006 when she was stopped by Virginia State Trooper T. Seagle while driving on Route 11 in Frederick County. Video of the traffic stop recorded from Seagle’s vehicle and provided to the Clarke Daily News by Kellam’s family, shows an extended and violent struggle between Kellam and Seagle on what appears to be an isolated stretch of highway.
[Editor’s Warning: The attached video contains disturbing violence and profanity.]
Video Clip 1:
Video Clip 2:
After stopping the vehicle, Seagle asks Kellam to step out of her car and Kellam complies with the order.
As Officer Seagle speaks with Kellam he states that he smells marijuana. Kellam tells Seagle that she doesn’t have any marijuana. As the discussion begins to escalate, Kellam attempts to return to her vehicle. Seagle makes an effort to stop Kellam and a struggle ensues. During the struggle Kellam escapes from Seagle’s grip and manages to regain possession of her vehicle. The video shows Kellam driving away from the scene of the traffic stop after ignoring Seagle’s repeated orders to stop.
Seagle’s squad car video recorder captures the subsequent pursuit and Kellam’s decision to eventually pull into a lighted parking lot. After Kellam stops her vehicle, Seagle again attempts to physically remove Kellam from her car while simultaneously radioing for emergency assistance from a Virginia State Police dispatcher. After several minutes of struggle Kellam is finally extricated from her vehicle and handcuffed. Seagle is then observed searching Kellam’s car and purse.
At time code 23:25:30 in the second video segment Trooper Seagle confronts Kellam with an object that he says is marijuana and states that she is being charged with possession of marijuana.
Kellam objects to Seagle’s statement saying that she does not have any marijuana and that Seagle must have placed the marijuana in Kellam’s purse.
Kellam is then placed under arrest.
Vonceil Hill says that after the arrest Kellam paid Thomson a $5,000 retainer to represent her on the marijuana charge. However, Hill says that Thomson failed to file legal documents that Kellam believed allowed her to avoid an appearance at a court hearing related to the marijuana charge. Kellam’s absence from the hearing led the judge in the case to the issue a bench warrant for Kellam’s arrest.
At a recent press conference conducted by Kellam’s family, both Hill and Davis said that not only did Thomson not file court documents required in Kellam’s case on the local marijuana charges, which were eventually dropped, but that Thomson was also representing Kellam’s cousin, Sara Johnson at the same time.
Sara Johnson went on to become a prosecution witness at Kellam’s 2006 federal drug trial.
According to Davis, Johnson later testified against his mother because Johnson had a vendetta over a previous drug arrest. “Sara Johnson said that she did it because my mother had set her up on a previous arrest” Davis said.
If the statements by Kellam’s family are true, which Vonceil Hill says will be corroborated by other people who she believes are willing to testify, important conflict of interest and ethical issues about the judicial process that landed Kellam in jail for life may need to be re-examined.
Kellam later filed a complaint against Seagle over the incident for use of excessive force.
“Charceil exercised her Constitutional right to complain about her treatment during her Frederick County arrest by Seagle” Hill says. “Feeling uncomfortable with the trooper’s behavior, Charceil drove at a low speed to a nearby well-lighted convenience store, a response advised in this situation by various authorities” Hill said. “Once at the store, she parked, but refused to leave her vehicle until another officer arrived. Trooper Seagle shouted at her to get out of the car, and attempted to pull her out bodily. Charceil suffered injuries from this incident, which she documented at a physician’s office soon afterward.”
But Kellam’s problems were only just beginning. According to Perry Davis, the law enforcement response to the bench warrant for his mother’s arrest was unbelievable.
“In May 2006, 28 law enforcement officers waited on Josephine Street for three hours for my mother to return home” Davis said.
Vonceil Hill corroborated Davis’s statement saying “She was beaten up that day again by Officer Seagle and some other officers. This was seen by many in the community. Officer Seagle also pulled a gun on my mother’s neighbor and her husband. She had to show ID that she was not Charceil.”
The subsequent Berryville arrest led Kellam to also file complaint charges with the Virginia Bar Association over Thomson’s handling of her case.
Perry Davis says that his mother’s complaints against Thomson and Seagle touched off a series of retaliatory steps by authorities that ultimately resulted in an indictment of conspiracy to distribute crack cocaine and the subsequent extraordinarily severe penalty Kellam received given her non-violent record of minor drug offenses.
Both Davis and Hill say that they believe Kellam’s complaints prompted federal authorities to file the false charges against her.
In September 2006, Kellam, along with 27 alleged co-conspirators, were indicted for cocaine distribution. The charges stemmed from a year-long drug and gang investigation on Winchester’s North End. The drug operation was nicknamed “Blockbuster” because it focused on operations in an area near Winchester’s Cartwright Recreation Center on North Kent Street known as “The Block”.
But Kellam’s family insists that after her release on bond from the May, 2006 Berryville arrest, Charceil had turned her life around. They also say that Kellam never had had contact with people on The Block to begin with.
“After getting out on bond, Charceil completed a six week drug program in Martinsburg, West Virginia and then enrolled in a woman’s drug program in Winchester” Vonceil Hill said. “She was getting back on track when they accused her of being part of a conspiracy ring in Winchester with 27 other people.”
Hill says that prosecutors wrongly assumed that her daughter was living with a man named as a co-conspirator in the Blockbuster drug distribution investigation but later admitted in court that Kellam had not met the man prior to her arrest in the conspiracy case. According to Hill, authorities accused Kellam of conspiring with a man called “Cowboy” to deal drugs, but later discovered that another person used the same nickname.
While Davis and Hill make no attempt to cast Kellam’s past as anything other than checkered, Davis adamantly denies that Kellam was ever a drug dealer. “She never did anything other than support her own habit” Perry Davis said. “Charceil did not know any of the people arrested in Blockbuster and lived in West Virginia at the time of the initial arrests. They said she lived with this guy named Alderson Michel. But the prosecutor’s witness admitted that after 16 month she realized that she had identified the wrong person. Even though they later dropped him from the conspiracy case they still left Charceil in the conspiracy.”
“I believe it was retaliatory,” said Larry Yates, a family friend. “The Virginia State Police video shows that the trooper’s behavior was inappropriate. These kinds of issues affect everyone. When a minor criminal receives life plus 30 years it also means that it could happen to anyone.”
Ultimately, Thomson did not represent Kellam on the federal charges which eventually led to her life sentence.
“It is our belief that various vindictive people with power in the criminal justice system, including attorney Thomson, played a role in punishing Charceil” the family said in its press release.
Davis’s contention that Kellam was never more than an addict trying to support a cocaine habit lies at the heart of the sentencing question being raised by Kellam’s supporters. Davis and Hill say that Kellam’s crimes, while serious, do not rise to a level that demands life imprisonment plus thirty years as punishment. They believe that the reason for the severe sentence was, in part, retribution by the legal system against an African American woman who attempted to stand up to a Virginia State Trooper and a well-known defense attorney.
“Race played a big deal in it” said Percy Davis.
The public record leaves little doubt that Kellam’s life was being impacted due to problems with drugs. Prior to her April 2006 arrest by State Trooper Seagle, court documents indicate that in 2005 Sara Johnson allegedly purchased crack cocaine from a dealer in Kellam’s home acting on behalf of police. Police believe that Kellam played a role in the transaction based on a recording device that Johnson was wearing.
Then later, when Kellam was arrested in Berryville in May 2006, police allege that she had cocaine in her possession.
However, Kellam’s family questions why Trooper Seagle’s was present at the Berryville arrest scene after Kellam had filed a complaint against him and also believes that the trooper planted the marijuana in Kellam’s purse during the earlier Route 11 traffic stop.
According to Hill, Kellam did not use marijuana. Hill said that in a hearing after Kellam’s April 2006 arrest, Trooper Seagle stated that he had been able to smell what turned out to be a small cache of marijuana even though he had a sinus infection on the night of Kellam’s arrest and despite the marijuana being sealed in a small plastic bag. Based on this information, Hill believes Kellam’s assertion that she did not have any marijuana in her possession on the night on April 4, 2006 and that she also did not possess cocaine when she was arrested in May 2006 on Josephine Street.
“Why was Seagle even part of the arrest team when she had already filed a complaint against him?” Davis asked.
“It is our belief that various vindictive people with power in the criminal justice system, including Attorney Thomson, played a role in punishing Charceil, not for her relatively minor and completely nonviolent crimes, but for being an African-American woman determined to speak up for her rights – and for all our rights” said Vonceil Hill.
In the end, a U.S. District Court jury in Harrisonburg, Virginia found Kellam guilty of three counts of distribution of crack cocaine and one count of conspiracy to distribute more than 50 grams of crack cocaine. The conviction came after Kellam turned down a plea deal for a 20-year sentence because, according to Hill, “she thought she was innocent, and that she would get justice.” When Kellam was later sentenced, U.S. Judge Glen Conrad said that he had no authority to deviate from the sentencing recommendation of the US Attorney’s office and sentenced Kellam to life in prison plus 30 years for the crimes but not before referring to Kellam’s sentence as “cruel” and “over the top,” while chiding the prosecution for its mistakes in connecting her to the conspiracy.
Last month Kellam took her case to the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals arguing that her sentence term was “cruel and unusual” and violated the US Constitution. However, Kellam’s plea to have the sentence set aside failed to convince appellate judges and the sentence was allowed to stand.
With the failure of Kellam’s Fourth Circuit appeal her final judicial recourse now lies in an appeal to the US Supreme Court unless the allegations of wrong doing in her case can be substantiated. Perry Davis says that he hopes the recent charges against Thomson will raise awareness of Kellam’s plight and possibly initiate a Justice Department investigation into the case.
Vonceil Hill said today that she and Davis are continuing to actively pursue a federal investigation into the matter.