(July 23, 2015) — When it comes to the circumstances leading to Sandra Bland’s death, what we don’t know far outweighs what we do.
And with each passing day, and each new revelation, the picture — instead of coming slowly into focus — appears to turn murkier.
“I have a hard time dealing with inconsistency and that seems to have been the theme over the last couple of days here,” Bland’s sister Sharon Cooper told CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront.”
Bland ended up in jail after she allegedly made an improper lane change and was pulled over by Texas state Trooper Brian Encinia on July 10. During the traffic stop, authorities say she was belligerent. Bland was arrested and taken to jail, where she died three days later.
What happens after that has ignited a debate about what the officer could have done versus what he should have done.
The issue: Cause of death
How did Bland die? The family is seeking an independent autopsy, dissatisfied with the official version.
Authorities say there was no foul play. They assert that Bland hanged herself with a trash bag from a metal barrier that separated the bathroom from the rest of her cell. She was found “in her cell not breathing from what appears to be self-inflicted asphyxiation,” according to the Waller County Sheriff’s Office.
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis has released some preliminary autopsy results that indicate she had marijuana in her system and cutting scars on her arm.
“There is absolutely no doubt in my mind” that Bland took her own life, Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith said.
Suicide makes no sense to Bland’s family and friends.
Bland was “ecstatic” at the prospect of starting a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, in Texas, family attorney Cannon Lambert said.
“Why is it that a 28-year-old woman who had received two job offers take her own life? Why would she call her mom in excitement about those jobs and take her own life?” Lambert asked.
The issue: Her mental state
Jail intake forms released to CNN tell two different stories.
In one section, it indicates that Bland said she tried to kill herself using pills in 2014 after losing a baby. In another section, the answer is “no” to the question: Attempted suicide?
Despite the inconsistencies, the answers should have raised red flags at the jail, according to Philip Holloway, a CNN legal analyst and former prosecutor.
“They should have been monitoring her very closely,” he said. “They should have gotten more detailed medical information … because they were put on notice … that she had a problem.”
It’s a problem that Bland talked about in a video she posted to Facebook earlier this year.
“I am suffering from something that some of you all may be dealing with right now,” Bland said. “It’s a little bit of depression as well as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).”
Her relatives say that’s news to them.
“I can tell you that we take issue with the notion that she was suffering from depression. She was never clinically diagnosed as this family understands,” Lambert said. “Everybody has hills and valleys, and we don’t know about any medication that she was taking in regards to … depression.”
The issue: Her arrest
Critics are quick to point out that Bland wouldn’t have been in a position to die in jail if she hadn’t been arrested after a simple traffic stop.
Encinia, in his arrest warrant affidavit, said he pulled Bland over for allegedly failing to use her turn signal. What started as normal conversation got testy after Encinia asked her to put out her cigarette.
The trooper wrote that Bland became “combative and uncooperative” and that she was placed in handcuffs “for officer safety.”
“Bland began swinging her elbows at me and then kicked my right leg in the shin,” Encinia said in the affidavit. “I had a pain in my right leg and suffered small cuts on my right hand. Force was used to subdue Bland to the ground to which Bland continued to fight back.”
Encinia also wrote that Bland “was placed under arrest for Assault on a Public Servant.”
But a dashcam video shows Encinia told her she was under arrest before the alleged assault took place.
The officer told Bland to exit her car 11 times and then tells her she’s under arrest. It’s then the alleged assault takes place.
The video from Encinia’s patrol car doesn’t show the confrontation, although it can be heard off camera. A cell phone did capture part of the exchange that took place.
A traffic stop should have never escalated to Bland being arrested, her family said.
“I simply feel like the officer was picking on her, and I believe that is petty,” Cooper said.
CNN law enforcement analyst Harry Houck said the trooper did have the right to ask Bland to get out of the car and then try to pull her out of the vehicle.
“The fact is an officer can make an arrest anytime … you run a red light, parking ticket, anything like that,” Houck said.
But Houck, a retired New York Police Department detective, said the video concerned him.
“The one problem I have was just that he told her to get out of the car because she wouldn’t stop smoking.”
Bland apparently said that she was “at a loss for words” about her arrest in a voice mail that she left for a friend while she was in jail, CNN affiliate KTRK in Houston reported.
KRTK reported that Bland had been staying with a friend, LaVaughn Mosley, in Texas while she was interviewing for the Prairie View A&M job. Mosley let KTRK listen to the message, which he said Mosely left him from jail on July 11, the day after her arrest.
“Hey, this is me. I’m, um, I just was able to see the judge,” the voice says. “I don’t really know. They got me set at a $5,000 bond. I’m still just at a loss for words, honestly, about his whole process — how this switching lanes with no signal turned into all of this. I don’t even know. But I’m still here. So, just call me back when you can.”
The issue: The dashcam video
The initial video the Texas Department of Public Safety released of the traffic stop had at least six video — but not audio — anomalies in two sections. A car disappears midscreen several times; a tow truck operator’s image jumps from outside to inside the vehicle.
Critics claimed the video had been edited.
Not so, the department said; it was an error in uploading. A second video released late Wednesday cleared up the anomalies.
It was an important matter to clear up, according to Paul Ginsberg, a forensic multimedia analyst.
“It was really more important than anything,” he said. “It’s their reputation. It’s their professionalism. It’s everything, and yet they uploaded something that apparently had flaws.”
The issue: The officer’s fate
Encinia has not spoken publicly about the incident and the Texas Department of Public Safety hasn’t released much information about him. It has assigned him to administrative duties.
“We have certain procedures in place, and he did not comply with those procedures,” said Steven McCraw, the department director. “One of the many procedures is letting the individual know in terms of what actions are going to be taken.”
Mathis, the Waller County district attorney, promised a thorough and exhaustive review of the case, which will be presented to a grand jury.
“It has not been determined at this point that this was a murder. This investigation is being conducted as a murder investigation would,” Mathis said. “Whatever the ultimate determination may be, whether that’s a suicide or a homicide, that will ultimately be decided by a grand jury.”