by Sharon Rondeau
(Mar. 2, 2021) — A federal lawsuit filed nearly three years ago in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee alleging civil-rights violations stemming from false arrests is moving forward, one of the plaintiffs told The Post & Email on Saturday.
Celitria Watson told us she and co-plaintiff April Malone are now represented by two attorneys who Watson said have been able to move the case forward despite numerous delays and postponements since March 2018, when they filed their complaint pro se.
The case was initially assigned to Judge Mark S. Norris, who delegated it to Chief Magistrate Judge Tu M. Pham, Watson said. It was returned to Norris for a time; however, Watson said Pham is again presiding.
After she and Malone retained counsel in the person of Varonica Cooper, Watson told us, Norris said, “We’re just going to go ahead and block out everything that happened so far and start over from scratch.”
As The Post & Email reported in February 2019, a jury trial was scheduled for December that year but was postponed twice. The next hearing to be held April 12, also designated a trial, is likely to be rescheduled, Watson said. “It’s supposed to be our trial, but it’s going to be rescheduled because the judge still hasn’t answered our motions from October,” she told us.
The plaintiffs originally named the Shelby County District Attorney General’s office, three of its prosecutors; City of Memphis and three of its officers as defendants. In August 2019, several parties were removed, the PACER docket shows, with two Memphis Police Department officers and the City of Memphis remaining.
In January 2017, Watson and Malone were arrested separately by three MPD officers assigned to the Department’s Organized Crime Unit (OCU) and charged by Shelby County prosecutors with participating in a conspiracy to smuggle drugs into a local penal facility as allegedly revealed in text messages they exchanged with an inmate who was also Celitria’s brother, Kendrick Watson. Unbeknownst to arresting officers and prosecutors at the time, Celitria was utilizing a Google app which automatically archives all of her text messages to her email account which she and Malone were able to use to prove that the allegedly incriminating texts had been altered.
In July 2017, Malone, Watson, and Malone’s mother, Patricia Malone, were quietly dropped from the list of 16 defendants.
Knowing they were innocent, Watson and Malone nevertheless had to pay bond fees to be released from jail, which Watson said caused her great financial hardship from which she continues to suffer to this day. A single mother of five children, Watson said it cost her $3,750 for bond plus an additional $3,500 to an attorney who she saw a week after her release.
“When we got arrested on January 31,” Watson said, “my bills were due the next day. So all of the money I was going to use to pay my bills I used to bond out of jail. Then they took my car, so I had to rent a car for about two weeks, then I had to buy a new car. I had to move out of my apartment to downsize. Everything has been horrible and cost us money. Within a couple of months, my credit score went down about 300 points. I paid my rent first and then figured out the rest of the bills for the month.”
As a result of that experience, Watson said, she arranged to consult with Cooper, who said, “I’ll take your case.” Her representation of Watson and Malone commenced last March when both women were approximately in the middle of giving depositions, Watson told us; Atty. Terrell Tooten joined as co-counsel in June, the docket shows.
“Since then,” Watson said of the case’s progress, “it’s just been going wonderful.” She also praised Tooten, who she said has proved very valuable as a result of his previous representation of her brother Kendrick, who several years ago was incarcerated in state prison on what Kendrick maintained was “fake evidence.”
Kendrick is now out on parole, Celitria said, and is attempting to have his conviction overturned.
Of Tooten, she said, “He called me one day and said, ‘Whatever I do for my clients I have to live with it. I have children, and they have to look at me like I’m a man.’ So he has a conscience.”
Disillusioned by what she sees as elusive justice for what she, her children and Malone have experienced, Watson said that after the case concludes, she plans to become active in promoting candidates for local office who will uphold the people’s constitutional rights to fairness, equality and swift justice in the face of wrongdoing.