NATION

What happened to Sandra Bland in cell 95? Debate continues with video release

Much of the debate about the death of Sandra Bland here at Waller County jail comes down to what happened in cell 95.

Bland, of Naperville, Ill., ended up in the 15-by-20-foot cell after a Texas state trooper stopped the 28-year-old African American woman for failing to signal while changing lanes on July 10. She 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 in the hours before her death has thrust this small town — once known mainly for its watermelons — into the continuing national debate over race and police.

Bland’s family and local activists have demanded an independent investigation, insisting that the young woman who was preparing to take a new job as a college outreach worker would not have ended her own life.

“This was not a suicide. This behind me was murder. All of America knows something is rotten,” the Rev. Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore said at a news conference in front of the Waller County Sheriff’s Department and jail.

An initial autopsy report appeared to support sheriff’s officials’ account of what happened.

“Her manner of death is classified as suicide,” said Tricia Bentley, spokeswoman for Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, which handled the autopsy. “The cause of death is hanging.”

But the local district attorney said Monday that Bland’s death was being investigated as a possible murder.

Local officials released about three hours of surveillance video from the hallway outside cell 95 on Monday. It appeared to show that no one entered her cell between the time a jail worker last checked on her and when her body was discovered.

A chronology Waller County Sheriff's investigators released with the video says it starts at time stamp 6:03 a.m., but it is actually nine minutes, 26 seconds fast. At the start, jail officers can be seen serving breakfast. (Bland refused a tray.) 

About 6:51 a.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 be talking to Bland for several seconds.

There's then a gap in the footage — from 7:18 to 7:24 a.m.

Waller County Dist. Atty. Elton Mathis noted that the video is motion-activated, so, “There's going to be some gaps.”

“At this point, we don't believe there was any editing. These have not been analyzed by the FBI yet,” Mathis said at a Monday news briefing with sheriff's investigators.

From 7:34 to 9:07 a.m., 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.

At 9:13 a.m., paramedics can be seen entering the jail and then cell 95. By 9:16 a.m., a paramedic pronounces Bland dead, and they can be seen leaving a minute later.

Activists said they do not trust the video, nor the local or state investigations that the FBI is monitoring. They called for a federal investigation.

“We're asking them to come in and take over the investigation. We're not trusting the evidence that's coming forward,” said the Rev. David Madison of Greater Ward AME Church in Houston, who is also president of the AME Ministers Alliance.

Bland’s death is the latest in a series of cases involving authorities and deadly confrontations with African Americans, including Eric Garner in New York City last July, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., last August, and Walter Scott in North Charleston, S.C. and Freddie Gray in Baltimore, both in April.

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FOR THE RECORD

1:49 p.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that Walter Scott was from North Carolina. He was from South Carolina.

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During the news briefing at the local courthouse, Waller County Sheriff's Capt. Brian Cantrell shared authorities’ timeline leading up to Bland's death.

After Bland was stopped at 4 p.m. July 10 by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper, Cantrell said, she “became argumentative and combative.”

The trooper, whom he and the Department of Public Safety have refused to identify, then arrested Bland for assault of a public servant and drove her to the jail.

Bland was uninjured when she arrived and did not request medical treatment, he said.

“At 8:18 p.m., Ms. Bland was placed into cell 95, which is a housing area for females. Ms. Bland was placed into this cell alone based on the charge classification, which separates her from other inmates,” he said.

When jailers made their rounds at 7:05 a.m. July 13, Bland was 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 in the main control room advised her she could use the phone in her cell, with her pin number assigned at book-in to make outside calls,” Cantrell said.

He said there is no record of Bland making any calls.

Instead, at 8:58 a.m., 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.

He said jailers immediately took Bland's body down and attempted resuscitation, “but were not able to revive her.”

“She was found in a semi-standing position with the ligature surrounding her neck, then was placed on the floor to enable jailers to perform CPR,” Cantrell said.

The video footage is unedited, he said. “The FBI has been provided the original hard drives from the computer that saved the original footage for authentication purposes.”

“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, Dist. Atty. Mathis emphasized that Bland's death was being investigated as a possible homicide. A preliminary report by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences in Houston ruled it a suicide.

“This investigation is still being treated just as it would be in a murder investigation. There are many questions being raised in Waller County, across the country and the world about this case. It needs a thorough review,” Mathis said, noting, “It will go to a grand jury.”

The next county grand jury is not expected to meet until August, Mathis said.

Officials are expected to hold a briefing at Prairie View A&M on Tuesday, when investigators may release the trooper's dash camera video, the district attorney 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 the Department of Public Safety’s traffic stop procedures and “courtesy policy,” according to a department statement.

A second officer responded to Bland's traffic stop, a female Prairie View police officer, 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.

“It appears she was texting, maybe videoing, during the stop,” he said.

Mathis has requested fingerprint and DNA tests on the trash bag Bland was found hanged with, he said, “so we can figure out and say with certainty what happened in that cell.”

“There are too many questions that need to be resolved. Ms. Bland's family makes valid points that she did have a lot of things going on that were good in her life,” he said.

Relatives and friends insist that 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 to her Facebook page, Bland said she was 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 the $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.”

“It is unimaginable and difficult for us to wrap our minds around,” Cooper said.

Video footage reportedly captured by a passerby released last week appears to show Bland on the ground and protesting as she is being taken into custody.

“We understand that she was stopped,” Cooper said. “We understand that she felt that she was handled very harshly, that she was handled in a way that was overzealous from her perspective.”

Family attorney Cannon Lambert said relatives believe the woman known among her four sisters as “Sandy B” was killed.

Lambert said footage he viewed from the jail offers no insight into Bland’s death, and the camera footage from the trooper’s dashboard “doesn’t give us any more understanding of what actually happened to her.”

But the dash-cam footage does show Bland arguing and the trooper pulling out his Taser, Lambert said.

A department spokesman said last week that the trooper was going to issue Bland a warning for a minor traffic violation, but arrested her instead on suspicion of assault on a public servant after she kicked him.

Lambert said the footage shows the trooper approaching Bland’s vehicle and getting her license and registration before returning to the cruiser.

The officer returns to the driver's side of the car and asks Bland to put out her cigarette, and Bland refuses, Lambert said. The officer then asks Bland to get out of the car and opens her door.

Bland protests and reaches for her cellphone, Lambert said. “He steps back and pulls his Taser.

“She then complies with him by getting out of the car on her own,” Lambert said. “He tells her to put down the cellphone.”

The trooper tells Bland she is going to jail, and Bland asks why, Lambert said.

The two then move behind Bland’s vehicle to the passenger side of the car and are out of view for the rest of the footage, Lambert said.

Bland can be heard on the video protesting her arrest, he said.

“The frustrating part of it is, it revealed that her being asked to get out of the car in the first place wasn’t really necessary,” Lambert said.

Bland's body was expected to be released Monday. The family planned to have an independent expert conduct a second autopsy and then hold her funeral in Illinois, said Madison, the Houston pastor.

A memorial was planned for 7 p.m. Tuesday at Prairie View, he said.

Many Hempstead residents were following the case, hoping to learn more about Bland and how law enforcement behaved.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas wrote a letter to the Waller County sheriff Monday citing the county's “notorious history of disenfranchising black residents.”

But some local 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,” Jones said.

Some defended local law enforcement.

“I don't believe they intentionally did her wrong,” said James Swader, a retired air conditioning contractor and evangelical minister as he headed to Wal-Mart. “A lot of times suspicions can be aroused by people coming in from outside. I think this is something that should be addressed in the community.”

Jimmy Economou, 50, was less trusting of local authorities, 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.

Among protesters outside the jail Monday was Joy Harris, 62, a registered nurse wearing a neon orange shirt that said, “Sandra Bland was murdered.”

“Police officers should know what the law is and abide by that. People shouldn't lose their lives over this,” said Harris, who is African American. “As far as I'm concerned, we have a murderer in there with a badge.”

Twitter: @mollyhf

Times staff writer Michael Muskal in Los Angeles contributed to this report, as did Chicago Tribune staff writers Geoff Ziezulewicz, Bill Bird and Lolly Bowean.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

9:58 p.m.: The story was updated with the Bland family attorney's description of the video taken by the trooper's dashboard camera. 

8:05 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with details and context. 

5:46 p.m.: The story was updated with Twitter users' reaction and more information about the video. 

4:37 p.m.: The story was updated with details from a news conference and the release of a video.

2:15 p.m.: The story was updated with comments from residents.

The story was originally published at 1:49 p.m.

 

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