As Sandra Bland is laid to rest on Saturday, questions about the circumstances of her death continue to swirl. Here are 10 questions people are still asking about Bland, the activist who was found dead in a Texas jail cell three days after being arrested during a traffic stop. Authorities have ruled Bland’s death suicide by hanging. Both the traffic stop and Bland’s death are under investigation.
1. Why was Sandra Bland photographed in an orange jumpsuit, rather than in her street clothes?
A July 23 press release from the Waller County Sheriff’s office stated that when a prisoner is taken into the jail:
“The inmate is walked to the booking area where they are processed by the booking officer. Depending on how many inmates are being processed at this time, an inmate’s photograph may be taken in their original clothing or the inmate may be dressed out in orange. Their photograph is taken on the wall south of the booking officer’s desk. We should note that if the inmate is not standing directly in the center of the backdrop, a portion of the white wall may appear.”
Paul C. Looney, a trial attorney who practices in Waller County and Houston and who has been named by the Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith to lead a task force on jail procedures, told msnbc the jumpsuit vs. street clothes question “could go either way.” He said that of his clients who have been booked into Waller County jail, “Typically [the booking photos] were taken in their own clothes, if there was somebody available to do it when they first walked in. In booking photos of my clients, I’ve seen it both ways.”
2. Why was there no side profile picture of Ms. Bland in her mugshot?
Looney said Waller County may be the exception when it comes to how the photos are done. “You know? I cannot recall in all of my Waller County cases seeing a side angle” photo, he told msnbc by phone Saturday.
3. Why did an officer fill out the intake forms, rather than Bland herself, and why did her answers on suicide change?
The intake form, on which Bland indicated a past suicide attempt, but in which she also indicated she was not suicidal at the time, was filled out by the booking officer, as is customary in most jails. According to the July 23 press release from the Waller County Sheriff’s office: “Inmates are brought into the Waller County Jail intake section by the arresting officer. The arresting officer completes a Jail Book-in sheet and inventories the arrestee’s property. Jail staff meets with the arrestee and arresting officer and completes a Screening form for Suicide and Medical and Mental Impairments form and Texas Department of State Health Services Correctional Tuberculosis form. These forms are provided to the main control supervisor prior to the inmate being accepted.”
The release stated that any discrepancy in the information on the forms indicates that the inmate changed his or her answer.
4. Why wasn’t Bland placed on suicide watch?
An autopsy indicated marks on Bland’s wrists that are consistent with healing scars from past incidents of self-cutting. And the intake form indicated a past suicide attempt. Bland’s family reported that earlier this year, Bland had been distraught over the loss of a pregnancy, though the family has strongly disputed the notion that she committed suicide in jail. The Waller County Sherrif’s office acknowledged in the July 23 release that “Ms. Bland, based on Jail staff’s observations, was not placed on any formal suicide watch.”
Two women who were being housed in an adjacent cell have told local news media that Bland was distraught on Sunday night, the second night she spent in the jail, and that they wished that she had been housed with them, rather than by herself. One of the women, Alexandria Pyle, indicated that Bland was distraught that her calls to a friend who was supposed to be helping her meet the 10% requirement for her $5,000 bail had not been returned. (Bland left a voicemail for a friend, LaVaughn Morris, before she died.) And while Pyle told the local news outlet that she wished Bland had been housed with her and the other women rather than alone, according to the Sheriff’s office release, she was placed in cell 95, which was classified as a “medium to maximum security cell,” due to the offense she was charged with: assault on a law enforcement officer. The other women were being jailed on offenses in a different classification. The Waller County Sheriff’s office has admitted that there were issues with the jail staff’s training and protocols for checking regularly on inmates, but said they do not believe those factors contributed to Bland’s death.
5. Why was there a plastic trash can liner in Sandra Bland’s cell?
Most law enforcement professionals assert that when a prisoner is taken to jail, anything in their possession that could be used to harm themselves or others is taken away. Based on a press release from the Waller County Sheriff’s office, this jail is no different. Authorities have said Bland hanged herself with a plastic trash can liner that was in her cell.
“You know, as soon as I heard that I wondered what the hell was that doing there,” Looney said of the presence of the plastic bag. “I read a piece somewhere that said that they had been instructed to have liners in the trash cans, per a previous inspection. I guess I don’t understand why they would do that.”
A Texas Tribune article reported that hanging is the most common method of suicide in Texas jails, with bed linens, clothing, telephone or electrical cords and trash bags all having been used by inmates in the past. (Incidentally, of the 140 suicide deaths in Texas jails since 2009, Bland is the lone African-American woman among 15 female deaths.) The Waller County jail was cited by the state after a 2012 incident in which an inmate hung himself.
Elton Mathis, the Waller County district attorney, and his team have submitted the trash can liner found in Bland’s cell for further forensic analysis.
6. Was the death scene altered?
Photographs of Cell 95 from two different news outlets, including NBC News, show apparent alterations of the scene where Sandra Bland died. In one photograph, a pair of orange slippers, which can also be seen worn by a male inmate in the video of the EMS response to the discovery of Sandra Bland’s body, are at the foot of one of the beds in the cell, and a closed Bible is visible on the bed:
In another photo, the slippers are gone, and the Bible is open. The Waller County Sheriff’s office has not explained this discrepancy.
7. Could Sandra Bland have ingested marijuana in jail?
Bland was arrested on July 10 and held for three days. Toxicology tests during her autopsy showed the presence of a significant quantity of marijuana, according to the district attorney’s office. But the assistant district attorney, Warren Diepraam, on Thursday raised the possibility that Bland may have consumed or even smoked marijuana while she was inside the Waller County jail. Looney said that assertion “struck me as odd then, strikes me as odd now.” He said it seemed implausible that any inmate, having had their personal effects removed at intake, could have taken drugs with them into their cell, let alone used them undetected while inside their cell. Diepraam himself indicated on Thursday that no other inmates reported smelling marijuana while Bland was being held at the jail. And Diepraam indicated that THC, the principal drug component of marijuana, could have been in Ms. Bland’s system before her arrest, in sufficient quantities to still be detectable after several days.
It should be noted that to many legal experts, the issue of marijuana is irrelevant, and many Black Lives Matter movement supporters believe the district attorney’s focus on drugs is meant to disparage the deceased.
8. Why wasn’t Bland’s epilepsy tested for or treated?
Bland’s intake form included a check mark for “yes” on epilepsy, and she can be heard on the police dashcam video telling the arresting officer that she suffered from the illness. However, the autopsy did not include a test for epilepsy, and the sheriff’s office said Bland “was offered Emergency Medical Services prior to being transported to the jail” but that she “refused any medical treatment.”
9. Was there evidence that Sandra Bland was injured during the arrest?
The autopsy did indicate lacerations on Ms. Bland’s back that were consistent with a knee potentially being applied to her back, and the remnants of a leaf lodged in one of the lacerations on her back. Lacerations on her wrist were consistent with the application of handcuffs.
10. Why has no action been taken against the arresting officer?
The arresting officer, trooper Brian Encina, has been placed on desk duty, and the Texas Department of Public Safety has stated publicly that he violated departmental policies in his conduct during the traffic stop. At this time, the Texas Rangers and DPS are conducting their own investigations into the traffic stop, as is a different assistant district attorney, Mia Magnus, who would be activated in the event that criminal violations are found. That investigation is separate from the Sandra Bland death investigation. District Attorney Mathis has said no evidence of criminal behavior has been uncovered so far.