ABOVE PHOTO: Surrounded by family, attorneys and supporters, Geneva Reed-Veal, center, mother of Sandra Bland, a black woman found dead in a Texas county jail three days after a confrontation with a white state trooper, speaks to the media outside the federal courthouse Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015, in Houston. A federal judge has set a 2017 trial date for a wrongful death suit filed by the family of Sandra Bland. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
By Michael Graczyk
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 it 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 “other issues” and warned there could be indictments. Unresolved issues include possible charges against the trooper who arrested 28-year-old Sandra Bland.
While Texas grand juries typically decide on felony charges, Jordan wouldn’t rule out misdemeanor charges related to the case.
“All charges are under consideration,” he said, declining to elaborate.
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 yearlong 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.
Larry Rogers Jr., a Chicago attorney representing Bland’s family, said Tuesday that the legal team will renew its efforts to examine the findings of a Texas Rangers investigation into her death, which has been withheld because it was grand jury evidence.
“We hope we will now receive all the information we’ve requested without limitation so we can proceed with our own investigation of what happened to Sandy Bland,” Rogers said.
Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, said at a news conference in Chicago before the announcement that she wants to see all the evidence and has been frustrated by delays in the case.
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.”
Reed-Veal couldn’t be reached for comment on the grand jury’s decision. 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.”