Los Angeles Times
Answers sought in jail cell death
Sandra Bland killed herself, an autopsy finds, but activists say there’s more to it.
HEMPSTEAD, Texas — Much of the debate about Sandra Bland’s death here at Waller County Jail comes down to what happened in cell 95.
Bland, of Naperville, Ill., endedupin the15- by- 20- foot cell after a Texas state trooper stopped her for failing to signal while changing lanes on July 10. The 28- year- old African American woman had been visiting the area about 60 miles northwest of Houston to interview for a job at her nearby alma mater, Prairie View A& M University.
Days later, on July 13, Bland was found dead in the cell, hanging by a plastic trash bag from a bathroom privacy partition. Her feet were touching the ground, officials said.
The question of what happened has thrust this small town — once known mainly for its watermelons — into the national debate over race and police.
Bland’s family and activists insist that the young woman who was preparing to take a new job as a college outreach worker would not have ended her life.
“This was not a suicide. This behind me was murder. All of America knows something is rotten,” said the Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore at a news conference in front of the Waller County Sheriff ’ s Office and jail.
An initial autopsy report appeared to support sheriff ’ s officials’ account ofwhat happened, classifying her death as a suicide.
But Waller County Dist. Atty. Elton Mathis said at a Monday news briefing at the county courthouse that Bland’s death is being investigated as a possible murder.
Local officials released about three hours of surveillance video Monday from the hallway outside cell 95. It appeared to show that no one entered Bland’s cell between the time a jail worker last checked on her and when her body was found.
A chronology sheriff’s investigators released with the video says it starts at timestamp6: 03a. m., butit is actually nine minutes and 26 seconds fast. At the start, jail officers can be seen serving breakfast. ( Bland refused a tray.)
About 6: 51a. m., an officer can be seen entering cell 95 for a security check.
At 7: 17 a. m., a different male officer can be seen peering into the rectangular window of cell 95, according to the chronology, “checking on Ms. Bland.”
About 30 seconds later, another officer stops at cell 95 and appears to talk to Bland for several seconds.
For about 90 minutes, the video shows no movement in or out of cell 95.
Then, about 9: 07 a. m., a female officer can be seen checking the window of cell 95 — and running for help. She returns with a male officer and others soon join them, performing CPR.
A paramedic pronounces Bland dead by 9: 16 a. m.
At the courthouse briefing, Waller County Sheriff’s Capt. Brian Cantrell shared authorities’ timeline.
After Bland was stopped by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper, Cantrell said, she “became argumentative and combative.”
The trooper, whom he and the department did not identify, then arrested Bland on suspicion of assault of a public servant.
When jailers made their rounds early on July 13, Bland was still alive.
“A jailer personally spoke with Ms. Bland. Ms. Bland reported to this jailer, ‘ I am good,’ ” Cantrell said.
At 7: 55 a. m., Bland used an intercom in the cell to contact the jail’s main control room, “inquiring on how to make a phone call,” he said.
The jailer told her how to do it, Cantrell said, but there is no record of Bland calling anyone.
About an hour later, jailers went to cell 95 “to inquire if Ms. Bland wanted to go to the recreation hall.”
“The jailer looked through the window and observed Ms. Bland hanging from a privacy partition in her cell,” Cantrell said.
“The death of Ms. Bland in the Waller County Jail was a tragic incident, and not one of criminal intent or a criminal act,” Cantrell said.
But at the same briefing, the district attorney said the “investigation is still being treated just as it would be in a murder investigation. There are many questions being raised. ... It needs a thorough review.”
The case will go to a grand jury, Mathis said. The next county grand jury is expected tomeet in August.
The trooper’s dashboard camera video may be released Tuesday, Mathis said.
Mathis has seen that video. He described Bland as “very combative” and noncompliant, but also appeared to fault the trooper, noting, “It was not a model traffic stop and it was not a model person that was stopped.”
The trooper has been placed on desk duty after a preliminary review showed violations of traffic stop procedures and “courtesy policy,” according to a statement from the Department of Public Safety.
Asecond officer responded to Bland’s traffic stop but her dash camera footage is not available because the camera memory was full, Mathis said.
Investigators are still gathering evidence from Bland’s phone, Mathis said, and she may have been texting or recording video.
Relatives and friends say Bland was looking forward to a new job at Prairie View A& M and that she gave no indication she would kill herself.
In a widely reported video posted on Facebook, Bland said shewas suffering from “a little bit of depression as well as PTSD,” or post- traumatic stress disorder.
Bland’s sister Shante Needham said she talked to her July 11 about her $ 500 bond.
“I told her that I would work on getting her out,” Needham said, her voice cracking.
Another sister, Sharon Cooper, described Bland as outspoken, happy and passionate, and called suicide “unfathomable.”
Family attorney Cannon Lambert said relatives believe the woman known among her four sisters as “Sandy B” was killed.
The ACLU of Texas wrote a letter to the Waller County sheriff Monday citing the county’s “notorious history of disenfranchising black residents.”
Some Hempstead residents disagreed.
“There’s no racial tension here,” said Luther Jones, 47, as he played dominoes with three other African American residents at Bragg’s Hollywood Palace barbecue on the city’s main street. “The district attorney, I believe he’ll find out what’s going on.”
Jimmy Economou, 50, was less trusting, and glad the Texas Rangers were investigating with FBI oversight.
“If anybody did anything, they’re going to find it. They’ll get to the bottom of it. Local authorities won’t,” Economou said.
Joy Harris, 62, was among the protesters outside the jail. A registered nurse and an African American, she wore a neon orange shirt that said, “Sandra Bland was murdered.”
“As far as I’m concerned,” Harris said, “we have a murderer in therewith a badge.”