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Elton Mathis

Three panels investigating Sandra Bland’s death

One was appointed by the Sheriff:

Sandra Bland

In the wake of the controversial arrest of Sandra Bland and her jailhouse suicide, Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith has asked for an independent panel of civilians to evaluate all aspects of the way he runs his department, from the cell blocks to the streets, and make public recommendations for change.

“He wants to use this tragedy as a growth opportunity,” said long-time defense attorney Paul Looney, who has been asked by the sheriff to form the five-member committee.

[…]

“We have been given carte blanche. We have been told we’ll have access to any piece of paper we want. We can visit with any prisoner or person without notice,” Looney said. “We can go on ride-alongs,” he said of riding in patrol cars with deputies to observe them first-hand.

Looney said the committee will be a diverse group of leaders and that none will be in law enforcement. He also said they won’t pull any punches in making recommendations, which will be shared with the public.

“In a time period of great tragedy, there is also a great opportunity for growth, and he doesn’t want to miss that opportunity,” Looney said of the sheriff. “I don’t intend to be kind, the people I include on the committee will not be kind. We intend to be constructive.”

One was appointed by the District Attorney:

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis formed a second independent committee Monday to review the arrest and death of Sandra Bland and also released a toxicology report that one expert said suggests the 28-year-old woman used marijuana shortly before jailers found her hanging in her Waller County Jail cell.

Mathis said he was bringing in defense attorneys Lewis M. White and Darrell W. Jordan, both of whom are African-American, to lead a panel that will oversee the work of his office and make recommendations about charges for possible criminal conduct during the arrest and confinement.

“There are many lingering questions regarding the death of Sandra Bland,” Mathis said, explaining why he has asked for help just days after Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith formed a similar committee to review jail procedures.

[…]

The announcement that officials were forming another independent review committee did not build much trust with critics.

Former Waller County Justice of the Peace Dewayne Charleston said he didn’t know White or Jordan, so he couldn’t speak to their abilities or loyalties, but questioned any committee whose leaders are “appointed by the same person they are providing oversight for.”

“He’s not bound to take their advice, suggestions or recommendations, so it’s just window dressing,” said Charleston, who has called for Mathis to recuse himself from the case. “They could give him the best, most accurate recommendation but if he’s not obligated to accept it or just takes parts of it, it doesn’t really matter.”

Both White and Jordan have limited prosecution experience, graduated from Texas Southern University’s law school and work in small firms with five or fewer attorneys, according to the Texas State Bar’s website.

White, who passed the State Bar in 2002, worked under Mathis as a prosecutor for a year. Jordan, who passed the bar in 2006, has served as a prosecutor in the Army National Guard, where he still is a defense attorney. Jordan also has worked as a talk radio host for KCOH, part of the broadcasting company owned by Houston mayoral candidate Ben Hall.

Vivian King, a prominent Houston defense attorney and former prosecutor, said she did not know White, but had confidence in Jordan, who she had as a student at TSU.

“I think he’s confident and smart and will ask for guidance where he needs it,” she said. “He does care about getting it right.”

JoAnne Musick, the president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers, said the decision to bring in someone familiar with the county, like White, might give the duo a useful perspective. But she said that insider status also could undermine the public’s trust in the process.

“Houston is a very close and large area with tons of experienced former prosecutors and defense attorneys that could undertake that review,” she said, noting she knows neither White nor Jordan. “Their selection seems a little odd.”

Musick is one of five people selected by Hempstead and Houston attorney Paul Looney to serve on the sheriff’s review committee, which has not yet met. On Monday, Looney identified the others: Juan L. Guerra Jr., criminal defense lawyer; Randall Kallinen, civil rights attorney; Morris L. Overstreet, a former judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals; and former U.S. Rep. Craig Washington.

Jordan ran in the 2010 Democratic primary for judge of the 180th Criminal District Court. Here’s the judicial Q&A he did if you want to know a little more about him. The Sheriff’s panel has several well-known people on it, and I think they will live up to Looney’s promise that they will not hold back.

There will also be a legislative hearing:

The same day Waller County officials released results of Sandra Bland’s autopsy report, state lawmakers announced they will meet next week to discuss jail standards and police relations.

Members of the House County Affairs Committee, chaired by Houston Democrat Garnet Coleman, on Thursday will discuss “jail standards, procedures with regards to potentially mentally ill persons in county jails, as well as issues stemming from interactions between the general public and peace officers.”

That hearing will be tomorrow, July 30. Here’s the press advisory from Rep. Coleman, who can always be counted on to do a thorough job, and more on the hearing in the Trib. We need to learn all we can from this tragedy, and then to actually follow through on it, or we’re just going to keep having more like it. Still more here from the Trib.

Sandra Bland’s death ruled a suicide

That’s only part of this tragic story.

Sandra Bland

Waller County prosecutors said Thursday that a preliminary autopsy found that Sandra Bland committed suicide, but they pledged to continue investigating the circumstances surrounding her controversial arrest by a state trooper as well as her death in a county jail cell.

“The pathological findings … conclude that the cause of death was hanging and the manner of death was a suicide,” Assistant District Attorney Warren Diepraam said at a news conference focused on the forensic findings so far. “The evidence that we’ve reviewed up to this point supports those findings … However this is an ongoing investigation.”

Prosecutors also confirmed that a screening test had revealed marijuana in the system of the 28-year-old Bland at the time of her death on July 13, and a catalogue of injuries that included some 30 healing cuts on her forearm that may have been self-inflicted two to four weeks before she died.

But Diepraam repeatedly stressed that none of the injuries found on Bland’s body was consistent with a struggle. Some relatives have disputed the notion that Bland committed suicide, a death that occurred against the backdrop of a growing national movement to end police violence against African-Americans.

“At this particular time, I have not seen any evidence that indicates this was a homicide,” Diepraam said.

After the district attorney’s office released details from the autopsy report, the sheriff’s office in the rural county west of Houston released its own statement, which said that Bland had never been placed on suicide watch. The sheriff’s office on Wednesday released intake forms showing that Bland had told police after her arrest that she had attempted suicide in 2014 with pills following a miscarriage and that she had previously struggled with depression.

At Thursday’s news conference, District Attorney Elton Mathis generally steered clear of discussing the jail’s handling of Bland. But asked by CNN a day earlier if the sheriff’s office should have taken more precautions, he said, “It does appear she indicated to the sheriff’s office she’d tried to kill herself at least once. From a commonsense standpoint, I would think that would be something that would of course be important by jail commission standards when assessing inmates for potential care once they come under the control of the jail.”

You can find a copy of the autopsy report here. Sandra Bland’s family is pursuing its own postmortem, and we’ll see what comes of that. Whatever the case, let’s be clear about a few things.

Sandra Bland should never have been in jail in the first place.

As the video of Sandra Bland’s arrest makes its way into homes and offices around the country, people are aghast that the failure to use a turn signal led to a woman’s arrest and, ultimately, her death by what officials have identified as suicide. People want to know if the officer’s actions—asking that Bland put out her cigarette and demanding that she step out of her car—were legal. But that’s the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking whether it was good policing.

As a former police officer, and now as a legal scholar who studies policing, I know the law is not a moral compass. An officer’s actions can be entirely lawful, and yet fail to meet the high standards that we should expect from our law enforcement professionals, our community guardians. When we focus on whether the police acted lawfully, we are missing the chance to ask whether they acted appropriately. As I watch the dash camera video of the traffic stop, I can’t help but think of the distinction between lawful policing and rightful policing.

[…]

It is right here that Encinia has an opportunity to alleviate some of the tension of the encounter. He could, for example, thank her for moving out of the way, but explain how important signaling is, especially near an intersection. He could let her know that he has written her a warning, not a ticket (a fact that does not become clear until much later in the encounter). He could try to connect with her on a personal level, perhaps by telling her that he’d hate to welcome her to Texas with a traffic ticket.

In short, he has a chance to engage with Bland in a way that reduces antagonism and builds goodwill. It isn’t hard, and can be summed up in three words: Receive, respect, respond. Receive what someone is telling you, respect their position, and respond appropriately.

But he doesn’t. Instead, Encinia is silent. A couple of seconds pass. Then he says, “Are you done?” Those three short words send a powerful signal: “What you said does not matter.” This is the first failure in this encounter. It is not a legal failure—there is no law that requires officers to meaningfully engage with people—but it is a failure nonetheless. It is a missed opportunity for good policing.

As you know, I agree with that assessment.

But let’s say you think the officer’s conduct was acceptable and the arrest was justified. In that case, Sandra Bland should not have been in jail for as long as she was.

The reason Sandra Bland was still in jail three days after being arrested was that she hadn’t posted the $5,000 bond that had been set for her by a Waller County, Texas judge. Posting that bond would have required Bland to come up with $500—10 percent of the full sum—in exchange for her freedom. According to a lawyer for the Bland family, they were working on securing the necessary funds when Bland was found dead in her cell on the morning of July 13.

If Bland had been able to pay her bail on the spot, she would have been released immediately following her arraignment, which took place on Saturday, July 11, the day after she was pulled over on a traffic violation and detained for allegedly assaulting a police officer. A representative for the Waller County Sheriff’s Office told me they could have processed Bland’s bail at any time Saturday or Sunday.

The point of bail is to make sure that someone who has been accused of a crime appears in court when the time comes for a judge to hear her case. The money acts as an insurance policy for the judicial system: If you show up for your court date, the money is returned to you. If you don’t appear, you have to pay the court the full amount of your bond. How much you’re required to pay in bail up front is supposed to be based on whether a judge or a magistrate considers a defendant a flight risk, and whether he believes the defendant to be dangerous.

In practice, the bail system is particularly hard on poor people, who frequently get stuck behind bars because they can’t afford to post bond, while those with greater means pay their bail and go home. According to one study, five out of six people in jail are there because they could not afford to pay their bail.

That’s a problem in a lot of jails, including and especially Harris County, where we continue to tolerate judges who lock up scads of people who haven’t been convicted of anything and aren’t a danger to anyone. It’s a nationwide problem, which we’re just beginning to talk about.

But suppose you think that $5K was a reasonable bail for the charge in question. In that case, we come back to the failure of oversight at the jail, which is a problem not just for Waller County.

When Sandra Bland was booked at the Waller County Jail, she told the staff she had attempted suicide before — a staff, it turns out, who had not been sufficiently trained on how to safeguard the well-being of inmates who are mentally ill, suicidal or pose a risk to themselves.

Three days later, the 28-year-old was found dead in her cell — an apparent suicide, according to a Harris County autopsy. Now, mental health watchdogs and advocates for criminal justice reform are sounding the alarm, saying Bland’s case spotlights deficiencies in jail monitoring and oversight that can sometimes have deadly consequences.

Had Bland’s jailers followed through on mental health training and complied with minimum state standards for inmate monitoring — including checking on her at least once an hour — they might have been better prepared to prevent her apparent suicide, mental heath advocates and criminal justice experts said. But they said the lack of sufficient mental health training for jail staff is widespread in Texas.

With an annual budget of about $1 million, the watchdog agency that sets standards for the state’s disparate network of 244 county and private jails employs four people to inspect those local lockups each year, and one inspector to respond to inmate complaints. The agency is chronically underfunded and understaffed, experts say, meaning citations for jails found out of compliance often come only after a tragedy.

The commission’s annual budget is, in many cases, one-third those of comparable agencies in other large states, The Texas Tribune has found. Its much smaller staff of inspectors, until recently, had to share motel rooms because of a limited travel budget.

“I think any advocate would tell you that the jail commission is not adequately resourced to do the kind of preventative inspections that we would like for them to do,” said Matt Simpson, a senior policy strategist at the ACLU of Texas.

The great irony here is that Texas is actually exceptional for having such a commission in the first place – most states don’t. It just doesn’t have the resources it needs to do the job, and as we’ve already discussed, that job is made harder by the presence of so many people who shouldn’t be in jail in the first place.

The system failed Sandra Bland in a lot of ways, and I haven’t even touched on any of the racial aspects of her case. I’ll leave you to find writers who are smarter and better informed than I am to tackle that subject, which deserves all the attention it’s getting. There are many things we must do to prevent future tragedies like Sandra Bland’s and ensure that we live up to our own ideals about everyone being equal. I’m just highlighting a few of the obvious ones.

Sandra Bland’s death being investigated as a homicide

Doesn’t mean that’s how it will be ruled, but it’s at least a sign that it’s being taken with appropriate seriousness.

Sandra Bland

The probe into Sandra Bland’s hanging death inside a Texas jail — which a medical examiner ruled a suicide last week — now includes the possibility of murder.

“This is being treated like a murder investigation,” Elton Mathis, Waller County’s district attorney, said at a press conference Monday.

Mathis said he made the determination after talking to Bland’s family and to those who saw her last, including the bail bondsman, who was among the last to hear from her alive.

[…]

While the Harris County medical examiner ruled her death consistent with a suicide, Mathis said it is now being treated as a murder.

“There are too many questions that need to be resolved. Ms. Bland’s family does make valid points. She did have a lot of things going on in her life for good,” Mathis said.

The district attorney also said the dashboard video of the traffic stop in Prairie View that was retrieved from Encinia’s patrol car would be released on Tuesday.

After viewing the video, Mathis said Bland was not “compliant” with the officer’s directions.

“Sandra Bland was very combative. It was not a model traffic stop. It was not a model person that was stopped,” Mathis said.

See here for some background. I am sure that dashcam video will be all over social media later today. The Chron story provides a different assessment of its contents.

Mathis said he has requested scientific testing from the jail, including touch DNA evidence on the plastic trash bag that medical examiners in Harris County said Bland used to kill herself.

Mathis outlined some of the details of his investigation at a news conference Monday afternoon, hours after a separate news conference, where advocates for Bland raised questions into her death.

Advocates representing Bland’s relatives also said dash cam footage of her traffic stop in Prairie View contradicted information provided by the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The family also called for the Department of Justice to investigate the circumstances of her arrest on July 10 and death three days later in the Waller County Jail, which officials have ruled a suicide.

“We know we’re standing at a crime scene,” said Jamal Bryant, an advocate for Bland’s relatives, outside the jail.

At a news conference, Bryant, a pastor at the Empowerment Temple AME Church in Baltimore, said the footage, which had been shown to Bland’s relatives and their lawyer, but which has not yet been released publicly, showed the DPS trooper stopping her, walking to her car, and then speaking to her while she smoked a cigarette.

The trooper, 30-year-old Brian Encinia, told her to put it out, and she refused, Bryant said.

Bland began videotaping the stop with her cell phone, which enraged the trooper, Bryant said.

“You can’t see at any point where Bland attacks the officer,” Bryant said.

DPS officials have said that during the stop, Bland became “uncooperative” and kicked the officer. She was arrested and charged with assault of a public servant.

Cannon Lambert, a Chicago-based attorney representing the family, said Sunday on a Washington D.C. radio show that Encinia tried to pull Bland from the car when she reached for her cell phone. When that didn’t work, he pulled out a TASER and pointed it at her, and she voluntarily got out of the car, he said.

The dash cam did not record the entire encounter between the trooper and Bland.

I hope it’s enough to settle the arguments, but I suspect it will intensify them instead. We’ll see what it has to tell us.