When Sandra Bland died in Waller County Sheriff's Office custody three days after her arrest, responses ranged from outrage to conspiracy theories. And why not? Texas is the state where prosecutors cheated to falsely convict Michael Morton, and Anthony Graves. Even the very jail where Bland was last living has a history of state rules violations, reports the Dallas Morning News. It's not so difficult to imagine then, that Texas prosecutors could conspire with law enforcement to cover up a police killing.
But in what feels like unprecedented openness and transparency, The Waller County Sheriff's Office has released three days' worth of footage relating to this case -- adding to Bland's autopsy report and dash-cam footage of the traffic stop already made public by other agencies. This most recent release completely debunks conspiracy theories that Bland was dead on arrival to the county jail.
The Conspiracy Theory: Her Booking Photo is a Fake
Soon after Bland's booking photo went public, careful observers noticed that the background color of Bland's booking photo appeared to match the jail's floor -- in contrast to other Waller County booking photos with a cinder block backdrop. Conspiracy theorists speculated that the photo was taken as Bland's already dead body lay on the jailhouse floor, Deputies snapping the shot from above her. The conspiracy spread through social media via coverage in sources like BuzzFeed and USA Today.
But the footage released this week by Waller County shows Bland perfectly living, crying as she's booked in to the jail. The video shows her standing before a magistrate as her bond is set at $5,000. It shows her making phone calls, apparently in an effort to find someone to post her bail and secure her freedom as she awaits these charges. Not dead.
Additionally, CNN reports today that another inmate whose cell was nearby, and who chose to speak anonymously, spoke with Bland twice before her death, and never heard any signs of struggle. This testimony, along with this newest video confirms that this myth is busted.
Questions remain, however, about Department of Public Safety dash-cam video footage. The initial release contained several glitches that made the video appear to be edited. Soon after that posting, the old version was pulled down and replaced by a new, glitch-free version that was three minutes shorter. DPS says that the glitches were because of problems uploading the video. If one exists, DPS should release the longest video it has. Perhaps the run times will then match up and DPS can clear the specter of impropriety from its handling of the aftermath of Trooper Encina's escalation of a routine traffic stop. Failing that, I can't see a way DPS can ever fully allay these concerns. The new version is devoid of glitches. An increasingly skeptical public must choose to either take the government at its word on this one, or not.
Waller County Jail is Still Not Off the Hook
Waller County did the right, transparent, open thing: they released copious amounts of video. That video shows that neither DPS nor they killed Sandra Bland. So they're off the hook, right? Wrong. They appear to have failed to prevent Sandra Bland from committing suicide on their watch.
Although her family appears to be litigating whether Bland was depressed, or had ever attempted suicide, on her jail intake paperwork, Bland admitted to a 2014 suicide attempt following a miscarriage. The medical examiner also concluded that some 30 marks on her body physically bore out her tries at taking her own life. The video shows Bland crying. In all likelihood, Bland should have been watched more carefully.
In nearby Harris County, where I practice, I'm accustomed to at least an appearance of serious concern for observations of possible suicidal behavior. On every floor are posted large prominent signs asking attorneys to notify jail staff if our clients seem depressed, or if they've just received bad news.
The Houston Chronicle reported Monday that Waller County District Attorney has appointed a second independent committee to review Bland's arrest and death. The committee will be headed by 13-year attorney Lewis White and 9-year lawyer Darrell Jordan -- both black, and both graduates of historically black Texas Southern University's law school.
The commission's purpose isn't totally clear to me yet. It appears that they will report to the District Attorney -- making the commission obviously impotent. Already some are saying this is a move by the DA for optics alone. The choice of lawyers to head the commission is being questioned by Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association (HCCLA) President, JoAnne Musick. (Full disclosure, I serve on the board of directors of that organization). She doesn't recognize the names, and neither do I. Prominent Houston criminal attorney Vivian King taught Darrell Jordan in law school, and speaks highly of the attorney who has offices in downtown Houston according to his page on the state bar website.
Meanwhile, the sheriff has named his own review committee which is a who's who of prominent local attorneys who specialize in this area: JoAnne Musick (former prosecutor and two-time president of HCCLA), Randall Kallinen (the only lawyer I know of in Houston who specializes in federal civil rights litigation), Morris Overstreet (former justice on the highest criminal court in Texas, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals), and U.S. Representative Craig Washington. This committee's power and goals remain unclear too, and it has yet to meet so far.
On the whole, it appears that Waller County Officials are doing everything they can, given the national scrutiny, to appear transparent. Regardless of the power these committees may have, inviting independent lawyers in to investigate communicates openness and may help to restore trust. The commissions may find that the jail seriously dropped the ball in Sandra Bland's case -- with irreversible consequences -- but that it was an isolated incident. On the other hand, they may find a problem that is more widespread. Or they may conclude that Bland's death was simply unavoidable. However this comes out, perhaps some changes will be made to improve the safety of our incarcerated. Then, maybe some good will have come from this tragedy.
Philip M. Gommels is a Houston criminal defense attorney and principal of The Law Office of Philip M. Gommels, PLLC. He has extensive trial experience and has represented individual clients in a wide variety of legal matters. He is admitted to practice in Texas state courts, as well as federal courts for the Southern District of Texas, Northern District of Texas, Eastern District of Texas, and Fifth Circuit. In 2013 and 2014 Houstonia Magazine named Mr. Gommels a "Top Lawyer" in the field of Criminal Defense. And in 2014 the National Trial Lawyers Association listed him on of the "Top 100 Trial Lawyers" in the state of Texas.