HEMPSTEAD, Texas – A grand jury decided that neither sheriff’s officials nor jailers committed a crime in the treatment of a black woman who died in a Texas county jail last summer, but has not yet determined whether the state trooper who arrested her should face charges, a prosecutor said.
Prosecutor Darrell Jordan said Monday that the Waller County grand jury will return in January to consider whether to indict the trooper who arrested 28-year-old Sandra Bland in July.
The Chicago-area woman was pulled over July 10 for making an improper lane change. Dashcam video showed the traffic stop quickly became confrontational, with trooper Brian Encinia at one point holding a stun gun and yelling at Bland, “I will light you up!” after she refused to get out of her car.
Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw has said Encinia – who in June completed a year-long probationary stint as a new trooper and has been on administrative duty since Bland’s death – violated internal policies of professionalism and courtesy.
Bland was taken in handcuffs to the county jail in nearby Hempstead, about 50 miles northwest of Houston, and remained there when she couldn’t raise about $500 for bail. She was discovered dead three days later, hanging from a cell partition with a plastic garbage bag used as a ligature around her neck.
Her arrest and death came amid heightened national scrutiny of police and their dealings with black suspects, especially those killed by officers or who died in police custody.
Bland’s relatives, along with supporters fueled by social media postings, questioned a medical examiner’s finding that Bland killed herself.
In the days after Bland died, county authorities released video from the jail to dispel rumors and conspiracy theories that she was dead before she arrived at the jail or was killed while in custody. County officials said they themselves received death threats.
Cannon Lambert, an attorney representing Bland’s family, said Monday that the grand jury’s decision is consistent with what the family believes has so far been an attempt by authorities to cover up the events after Bland’s arrest.
“They continue to do things we are disappointed in,” he said.
Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, told a news conference held in Chicago before Monday night’s announcement that she wants to see all the evidence and has been frustrated by delays in the case.
Attorney Larry Rogers acknowledged grand juries usually meet in secret, but that the process means lawyers for Bland’s family haven’t been able to examine the findings of a Texas Rangers investigation into her death because the report is grand jury evidence.
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis, who appointed five special prosecutors to handle the Bland case, has said there is nothing in that investigation “that shows anything happened but she killed herself.”
“After presenting all the evidence as it relates to the death of Sandra Bland, the grand jury did not return an indictment,” Jordan, one of the five appointed prosecutors, said after the grand jury met Monday for about 11 hours. “The grand jury also considered things that occurred at the jail and did not return an indictment.”
Lambert said late Monday he believes prosecutors’ decision to have the grand jury return in January is another attempt to delay releasing the Rangers’ report. He said he expects to ask a federal judge to compel Texas authorities to turn over the document.
Reed-Veal couldn’t be reached for comment on the grand jury’s decision late Monday. She has filed a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court in Houston against the trooper, the Texas Department of Public Safety, Waller County and two jail employees. A judge last week set a January 2017 trial date in that case.
Bland family attorneys contend Waller County jailers should have checked on her more frequently and that the county should have performed mental evaluations once she disclosed she had a history of attempting suicide.
County officials have said Bland was treated well while jailed and produced documents that show she gave jail workers inconsistent information about whether she was suicidal.
Reed-Veal also contends in her lawsuit that Encinia, the trooper who arrested her daughter, falsified the assault allegation to take Bland into custody.
Melissa Hamilton, visiting criminal law scholar at the University of Houston, said Bland had no legal right to remain in her car after the trooper ordered her out.
“Whether you like it or not, the Supreme Court has made it clear police are in charge at a traffic stop, and they can make anybody get out of the car – driver or passenger – for no reason whatsoever,” she said. “The idea for that is to allow police to control a potentially dangerous situation.”
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