A charge has been dropped against the only official to face criminal indictment related to the arrest of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was found hanged in her Texas jail cell three days after her arrest and whose name became a rallying cry in protests against racial bias in policing.
Former state Trooper Brian Encinia, who pulled Bland over on July 10, 2015, in Prairie View, Texas, for failing to use a turn signal, no longer faces a perjury charge for making a false statement about the arrest, according to papers filed Wednesday at the Waller County Courthouse in Hempstead, northwest of Houston.
The dismissal of the charge comes more than a year after a grand jury said Encinia lied when he wrote in an affidavit justifying the arrest that he removed Bland from her car to conduct a safer traffic investigation.
Family members and civil rights officials had protested that assertion, pointing to a viral dash cam video of an escalating confrontation with Bland where the officer said he would "yank" her out of the vehicle, threatened to use a stun gun and said he would "light you up" as she refused to put out a cigarette and step out.
Three days after her arrest, Bland, 28, who could not make a $5,000 bond, was found dead in her jail cell. The death was ruled a suicide as protests grew over her arrest — family representatives said it was a needless arrest and death for a routine traffic violation — and activists aired criticism of the jail and about the circumstances of her death. They included pointing out that jail officials had insight into Bland's mental health history, including a suicide attempt the year before her arrest, but did not place her on suicide watch or check her cell often enough.
Encinia's attorney, Houston-based Chip Lewis, hailed the dismissal of the charge on Wednesday.
"My client was just a scapegoat. It was an answer to the public pressure over a young lady's death," Lewis said. "It wasn't Mr. Encinia's fault."
"He did not commit any criminal act. He would do anything in the world to go back and change the circumstances if he could," said Lewis, who said his client was a victim of "righteous outcry over the death of Sandra Bland."
Before the special prosecutors agreed to dismiss the charge, Encinia said he would no longer work in law enforcement, and surrendered his Texas Commission on Law Enforcement license, Lewis said. Encinia was fired in March 2016 after the indictment.
"He ended up the poster child for police brutality," Lewis said, and now, "he's got a family to raise."
A Bland family lawyer, Cannon Lambert, said he was shocked at the news. He said he was dismayed the family was not given notice of it.
"You cannot expect communities to feel confident with the system if officers are caught lying in written documents and are not held accountable," he said. "The notion that the special prosecutor would make a decision like this in the face of the kind of case this is without communicating with the family is deplorable."
In a statement, special prosecutors Pheobe Smith and Chad Dick said dropping the charge was "the best outcome."
"We understand that this is far from a perfect solution, and that many people will feel that this is an inadequate punishment, while others feel that charges should have never been filed," Smith and Dick said. "This is a solution that will guarantee that Mr. Encinia will never be a licensed law enforcement officer again."
The dismissal of the charge closes one of the last unresolved chapters of years of protests, investigations, civil court proceedings and legislation related to Bland's arrest and death. The same grand jury that had indicted Encinia also found no felony was committed by jailers or the Waller County Sheriff's Office.
In September, Bland's family settled for $1.9 million with Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety in a wrongful death lawsuit.
This month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law the Sandra Bland Act. It forces county jails to send people with mental health and drug abuse issues to treatment, eases the ability of defendants to get personal bond if they have a mental or intellectual disability, and requires independent law agencies to investigate prison deaths.
3:41 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement by the special prosecutors.