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Sandra Bland's family cites 'plethora of questions,' files suit over her death in Texas jail

Sandra Bland's family cites 'plethora of questions,' files suit over her death in Texas jail
Sandra Bland at her arraignment in Waller County, Texas, on July 11. (Waller County Sheriff's Office)

Sandra Bland's family filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the Waller County Sheriff's Office, jail officials and the Texas Department of Public Safety on Tuesday to seek answers and accountability for her death in a county jail cell last month.

"Candidly, we were unable to get many of the answers we have been asking for for weeks," the family's attorney, Cannon Lambert, told reporters in Houston. He was flanked by Bland's mother and three of Bland's four sisters, who had traveled from Illinois to be at the news conference. Two of the sisters wore buttons showing Bland's face.

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"We are looking for Waller County and the individuals involved in this situation to take accountability," Lambert said.

The family's motivation, Lambert said, "is that they don't want to see this sort of thing happen again to another family.… It's got to stop."

"The bottom line is, she never should have been inside of a jail. Period," said Bland's mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, who brought her Bible to the news conference.

In an interview with The Times afterward, Bland's older sister Sharon Cooper said the family still has "a plethora of questions."

The county's outside counsel, Larry Simmons, expressed sympathy to Bland's family on behalf of the county.

"We look forward to presenting all the evidence to the court, in the context of the applicable standards for civil liability, and intend to vigorously defend the case," Simmons said in a statement. "We will be filing a response soon, and our court filings will clearly articulate the county's legal position in this matter."

Bland, 28, and her family are from the Chicago area.

Bland had gone to Texas for a successful job interview at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, about 50 miles northwest of Houston.

She was driving to a Wal-Mart to buy groceries July 10 when state Trooper Brian T. Encinia pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change, a minor traffic infraction.

The encounter between Encinia and Bland grew heated, and the trooper arrested Bland, reporting that she had assaulted him.

Bland was taken to the Waller County jail in Hempstead, where she spent three days before officials said Bland hanged herself.

The family and activists have raised questions over the traffic stop and whether Bland committed suicide.

Cooper, 31, a businesswoman, said the family is concerned that authorities have been releasing information selectively, including dashboard camera videos from the police car of another officer who responded after Encinia stopped Bland.

"It gives me cause for concern. It gives me more questions," Cooper said.

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Bland used to tease Cooper about being "Type A," calling her "Martha Stewart." Cooper described her sister as vibrant, outspoken, confident and assertive.

She has been frustrated to see Bland blamed for the way she can be seen taking issue with Encinia in his dashboard video, raising her voice and becoming increasingly agitated.

"It is not against the law to assert your rights," Cooper said. "Her tone changed when the officer opened her door and reached in her car."

During the confrontation, Encinia pointed his stun gun at Bland and said, "I will light you up."

Cooper faulted the trooper for not "de-escalating" the situation and for targeting her sister.

"He walked to her agitated and asked her things unrelated to her stop: Where are you going? Are you from Texas?" Cooper said. She believes the trooper's ego was bruised because Bland "was a woman and not being docile."

The last time the family heard from Bland was the following afternoon, Saturday,  July 11. She called her eldest sister, Shante Needham, 35, to arrange for relatives to pay her $500 bond.

"She reiterated it was a minor traffic stop and she felt she had been mistreated," Cooper said.

Bland was "frustrated and in disbelief" and "disappointed at the situation, but her spirits were up," Cooper said.

"The next call we did receive was Monday from the jail saying she had hanged herself," Cooper said.

Jail booking documents show Bland wrote that she had attempted suicide after suffering a miscarriage last year and that she was epileptic, which Cooper said was true. But she noted the documents also show that Bland said she had not been depressed and wasn't depressed at the time of her arrest.

The family has not heard from Encinia. Cooper said she would like to tell him, "Shame on you," and ask, "What were you thinking?"

"I just would like to know what was going through his mind that he would treat Sandy that way," she said.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, names Encinia, the Department of Public Safety, Waller County, the Sheriff's Office and jail officers Elsa Magnus and Oscar Prudente as defendants.

The suit accuses Encinia of assault and battery for his actions during the traffic stop and says jail officials left unsafe items in Bland's cell, including garbage bags and cords, and then failed to appropriately monitor her.

Officials say Bland used a garbage bag to hang herself.

The family on Tuesday repeated its call for the U.S. Justice Department to take over the investigation. Lambert said Bland's family had been denied basic information that had been provided instead to the news media.

Bland's autopsy was conducted by the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences in Houston, which ruled her death a suicide. The family commissioned a second, independent autopsy, but it's incomplete, Cooper said. They are waiting for Waller County officials to release information gathered during the first autopsy, including Bland's stomach contents, complete toxicology and what determined her time of death, she said.

Information in the toxicology report indicated Bland had marijuana in her system, but Cooper noted that no drugs were found on her when she was arrested.

"I have more questions now than I ever had before," Cooper said. She called on officials to release the information her family has requested, even if it includes "facts that are difficult for us to live with."

Staff writer Matt Pearce in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

Follow @mollyhf for national news.

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