Officially, the legal issue at hand was a misdemeanor charge of perjury. But in many ways the day’s proceedings also concerned Sandra Bland, the black woman whose death in jail last summer fueled criticism of police and their treatment of minorities.
Former Texas state Trooper Brian T. Encinia, whose traffic stop of Bland led to her arrest, pleaded not guilty to the perjury charge before District Judge Albert McCaig Jr. in Hempstead, about 55 miles west of Houston.
More than a dozen deputies and a Texas ranger kept guard around the courtroom packed with Bland supporters, including some in Black Lives Matter T-shirts.
Outside the courthouse, about three dozen Bland supporters gathered with signs reading, “What happened to Sandra Bland?” and “Stop police brutality & terror.” The crowd shouted down Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith with calls of, “You’re responsible for Sandra’s murder!” and “Sandy still speaks” — a reference to Bland’s online postings before her death in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, which has championed the family’s cause.
Encinia, escorted by a Texas ranger, entered the courtroom in a gray suit and blue tie with three attorneys, including Houston lawyer Chip Lewis, who earlier this year helped defend New York real estate scion Robert Durst in New Orleans.
At first, the former trooper did not look at Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, seated in the front row of the gallery with her eldest daughter, Shante Needham, their attorney and friends.
As Encinia passed, Reed-Veal stiffened. He kept his back to her during the hearing, which lasted just a few minutes. Then he turned as he left, and their eyes met briefly. Neither flinched.
Reed-Veal and Needham wore rhinestone cross earrings. Reed-Veal also wore a bracelet that said “Justice for Sandra,” and Needham a T-shirt with a picture of Bland seated in her car.
Encinia, 30, stopped Bland outside nearby Prairie View A&M University on July 10 for failing to properly signal a lane change. After a heated argument captured on a dashboard camera, the trooper arrested Bland, 28, on allegations of assaulting a public servant and took her to Waller County Jail.
Three days later, Bland — who had been visiting from Chicago for a successful job interview at the university, her alma mater — was found hanged in her jail cell. Her death has been ruled a suicide.
In January, a Waller County grand jury indicted Encinia after concluding there was evidence he had lied about the circumstances under which Bland left her car. Encinia turned himself in the day after he was indicted and was released on $2,500 bond. If convicted of the misdemeanor perjury charge, he could face up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
Earlier this month, Encinia was formally fired by the Texas Department of Public Safety director, who said the trooper's actions during the traffic stop violated department standards. Encinia has appealed that decision.
On Tuesday, Encinia was ushered out of the courthouse without comment. His attorney paused outside to thank supporters.
“This case now represents much more than Brian Encinia,” Lewis said. “It is a threat to all police officers in the state of Texas of a runaway grand jury or a rogue prosecutor deciding to Monday-morning quarterback a police officer’s decision.”
He said Encinia was charged because of a “tempest of emotion fueled by a media frenzy from a very tragic situation.”
“What Mr. Encinia did on the date of Ms. Bland’s arrest, from the moment he encountered her to the moment he finished filing his charges, was proper and in no way was a violation of any law in the state of Texas,” Lewis said.
Bland’s mother and her Chicago-based attorney Cannon Lambert remained in the courtroom to speak with the two special prosecutors handling the case, Chad Dick and Phoebe Smith.
“We made it very clear that we are of the mind that in order for accountability to be had, they have got to try the case” and not accept a plea, Lambert said.
Bland’s family has demanded investigative records in the case as part of the wrongful-death lawsuit they filed in August against the sheriff's office, jail officials and the state Department of Public Safety. A federal judge in Houston set the case for trial Jan. 23, 2017.
Government attorneys have sought to delay the lawsuit until Encinia’s criminal case plays out, or dismiss it, arguing that Bland killed herself because she was distraught that friends and family didn’t bail her out.
After the hearing, Reed-Veal greeted supporters outside with hugs, saying, “What happened in court was what needed to happen.”
She added, “I want an opportunity to allow accountability to be shown. I want answers as to what happened to my daughter.”
As the family’s car pulled away, supporters chanted “Sandy still speaks!”
The next hearing is scheduled for May 17.