DALLAS (AP) — A woman whose death in a Texas jail has raised suspicions about the official conclusion that she hanged herself told a guard during the booking process that she had tried to kill herself in the past, according to the county sheriff.
Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith said Wednesday that two jailers interviewed Sandra Bland after her arrest. He said the 28-year-old black woman from Illinois told the second interviewer that she was not depressed but was upset about her arrest, which occurred following a confrontation with a white officer who stopped her for a minor traffic violation.
The sheriff said both jailers who spoke with Bland insisted that she appeared fine when being booked on a charge of assaulting a public servant. The attorney representing Bland’s family, Cannon Lambert, said relatives had no evidence that she ever attempted suicide or had been treated for depression.
Documents filled out for Bland indicate she had previously attempted suicide after losing a baby. But the booking papers released Wednesday also indicate Bland did not have suicidal thoughts at the time of her arrest and that neither the arresting officer nor anyone else at the jail believed she was at risk.
The documents also contain discrepancies. One questionnaire says Bland took pills in 2015 in an attempt to kill herself after losing the baby. A separate form filled out by another jail employee says the suicide attempt occurred in 2014. One form indicates Bland had suicidal thoughts within the past year, another says that’s not the case.
Bland was arrested July 10 and was found dead three days later. A medical examiner has ruled her death suicide by hanging. Her family and friends dispute the finding. Texas Rangers and the FBI are investigating. An autopsy conducted by the Harris County medical examiner has been completed and given to Waller County, where officials have not said when it will be released.
Late Wednesday, Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis told CNN that his office had received an “initial report” from the medical examiner’s office that Bland had marijuana in her system, though he said further toxicology reports are pending. When asked about news reports that autopsy results also show evidence of self-harm, Mathis told CNN he’d been informed it was the “opinion of the medical examiner” that Bland had what appeared to be “cutting scars on the arm.”
A legal assistant for Mathis didn’t return a message from The Associated Press seeking further comment. The suicide questionnaire also notes that Bland told jailers she had epilepsy and was taking medication for it. But in another document, this one to be filled out by the inmate and signed by Bland, “no” is circled by the question asking if she’s currently on any medication. In a third document, it is checked “yes” that she’s taking medication.
Lambert said the family had no indication that Bland was ever treated for epilepsy. AP left messages seeking comment from Lambert after the jail forms were released. It was not immediately clear why the sheriff’s department had not acted earlier to disclose details of Bland’s intake form, whether it was widely shared among jail staff or whether it prompted jail officials to take any special precautions.
Bland’s body was found three days later in her cell. Authorities say she hanged herself using a plastic liner taken from a garbage can. State Sen. Royce West, who attended a Tuesday meeting with law enforcement and other officials to discuss questions surrounding Bland’s death, said Wednesday that the kind of information disclosed on Bland’s intake form should have prompted jail officials to place Bland on a suicide watch, meaning a face-to-face check on her welfare every 15 minutes instead of the hourly checks normally required.
Bland’s death comes after nearly a year of heightened national scrutiny of police and their dealings with black suspects, especially those who have been killed by officers or die in police custody. It has resonated on social media, with posts questioning the official account and featuring the hashtags #JusticeForSandy and #WhatHappenedToSandyBland.
The sheriff said Wednesday that no one gained access to the cell and contributed to Bland’s death. Bland’s family has said she was not despondent and was looking forward to starting a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.
However, Bland posted a video to her Facebook page in March, saying she was suffering from “a little bit of depression as well as PTSD,” or post-traumatic stress disorder. At least one friend has said she was just venting after a bad day.
Bland’s intake documents were released hours after her family held a news conference in suburban Chicago to discuss the release of a video of her arrest taken from the officer’s dashcam. It shows state trooper Brian Encinia drawing a stun gun and threatening Bland when she refuses to follow his orders.
The roadside encounter swiftly escalated into a shouting confrontation, with the officer holding the weapon and warning Bland, “I will light you up,” for not getting out of her vehicle. The video posted online Tuesday by the Texas Department of Public Safety shows the trooper stopping Bland for failing to signal a lane change. The conversation turns hostile when the officer asks Bland to put out her cigarette and she asks why she can’t smoke in her own car. The trooper then orders Bland to get out of the vehicle. She refuses, and he tells her she is under arrest.
Further refusals to get out led the trooper to threaten to drag her out. He then pulls out a stun gun and makes the threat about lighting Bland up. When she finally steps out of the vehicle, the trooper orders her to the side of the road. There, the confrontation continues off-camera, but it is still audible.
Bland can be heard protesting her arrest, repeatedly using expletives and calling the officer a “pussy.” She screams that he’s about to break her wrists and complains that he knocked her head into the ground.
A Houston television station, KTRK-TV, released a voicemail that Bland left a friend, LaVaughn Mosley, while in jail in which she expressed disbelief at her circumstances. In the message, Bland calmly said she’s “still just at a loss for words honestly at this whole process.” She wondered, “How did switching lanes with no signal turn into all of this?”
In response to questions about gaps and overlaps in the originally posted video, authorities said the footage was not edited or manipulated. Tom Vinger, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, said glitches occurred in the recording when it was first uploaded for public viewing, and the department uploaded it again.
The trooper, who has been on the force for just over a year, has been placed on administrative leave for violating unspecified police procedures and the Department of Public Safety’s courtesy policy.
Associated Press writers Terry Wallace and Jamie Stengle in Dallas and Don Babwin in Lisle, Illinois, contributed to this report.
Dashcam video posted by Texas Department of Public Safety: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CaW09Ymr2BA