Nation & World

Family questions death of Sandra Bland in Texas jail

Shavon Bland, back left, Sharon Cooper, back center, and Sierra Cole, right, Sandra Bland's oldest sister Shante Needham, center, becomes emotional as she tries to answer a question from a reporter during news conference about their sister's death
Shavon Bland, back left, Sharon Cooper, back center, and Sierra Cole, right, Sandra Bland's oldest sister Shante Needham, center, becomes emotional as she tries to answer a question from a reporter during news conference about their sister's death AP

CHICAGO – The family of a 28-year-old Naperville woman found dead Monday in a Texas jail cell questioned the ruling Thursday that she had died by suicide, but called for calm as they pursue the facts of what caused the death of Sandy Bland.

Family attorney Cannon Lambert said the death of the woman known among her four sisters as “Sandy B” should not be politicized as the family figures out what happened in the Waller County jail.

Bland’s older sister, Sharon Cooper, said her sister was outspoken, happy and passionate, and that suicide was “unfathomable.”

“When you think through the circumstances that have been shared with us to this point, it is unimaginable and difficult for us to wrap our minds around,” Cooper said.

While Lambert repeatedly emphasized that the family would not succumb to the “swirl of accusations” and instead wanted to gather facts, he also said after the news conference that the family thought “that she was killed.”

“The family has been told many, many things, from a number of sources,” Lambert said. “As a consequence, the swirl of confusion is very easy to get swept up in.”

Family members are traveling to Texas on Thursday or Friday and hope to meet with the Texas Rangers conducting the investigation into Bland’s death, Lambert said.

Bland was found dead in her cell at the Waller County jail at 9 a.m. Monday, of what appeared to be suicide by hanging, according to authorities.

Lambert said the family wants to meet with the lead investigator in the case, and to “drill down” into the facts regarding the black woman’s death, which has been a contentious topic on social media in recent days.

“When you’re left not knowing what happened to people in these strange circumstances, the mindset that you have is that you seek understanding,” he said.

Bland had recently been offered a job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University, family said.

Bland was arrested Friday afternoon in the county, northwest of Houston, after failing to signal a lane change, according to Trooper Erik Burse, a Department of Public Safety spokesman. She was about to be let off with a written warning when she kicked the officer outside her car and was taken into custody, he said.

Sheriff Glenn Smith said she was charged with assault of a public servant and was arraigned over the weekend, when her bond was set at $5,000. A female jailer found her about 9 a.m. Monday, Smith said.

Paramedics were called and CPR was administered, he said, but she was pronounced dead shortly afterward.

“We understand that she was stopped,” Cooper said. “We understand that she felt that she was handled very harshly. That she was handled in a way that was overzealous from her perspective.”

The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences in Houston performed an autopsy on Bland on Tuesday, with the death ruled a suicide by hanging, according to Tricia Bentley, an institute spokeswoman.

Shante Needham, another sister of Bland, said she talked to her Saturday afternoon.

Needham said Bland told her that an officer “put his knees in her back, and that she thought her shoulder was broken.”

“I told her that I would work on getting her out,” Needham said, her voice cracking.

Lambert said there was no indication that Bland was in an emotional state where she would harm herself.

The Texas Rangers, the investigative arm of Texas’ Public Safety Department, has been called in to investigate Bland’s death, a move that Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis said was “typical protocol.”

Burse said the investigation could take a few weeks to a few months.

Posts featuring “#JusticeForSandy” and “#WhatHappenedToSandyBland” trended on Facebook and Twitter in recent days, questioning the official account of the woman’s death.

Bland’s Facebook page featured a post from Thursday with “#WallerCountyLine.”

Mathis said Wednesday that he had no reason at this point to not attribute Bland’s death to suicide.

“If I receive information that there’s something nefarious going on, or foul play, we will certainly get to the bottom of that,” Mathis said. “I understand there’s some disbelief among some friends and family that she would do this to herself. That’s why it’s very important that the Texas Rangers be allowed to conduct a thorough investigation.”

A video circulating on YouTube purports to be the police stop of Bland. The family’s attorney said Thursday they were in touch with the creator of the video but would not reveal that person’s name.

“We have little reason to believe it’s not her,” Lambert said of the video. “We have every reason to believe that it was.”

In the video, a woman can be seen held on the ground by two state troopers, and can be heard criticizing them for the arrest.

“This is real good. Real good for a female. Y'all strong, y'all real strong,” the woman can be heard saying.

Then, a trooper tells a bystander, who is recording the stop, that the person needed to leave. The bystander appears to keep recording, and the woman complains of being treated too roughly for what she says was a traffic stop.

“Really? Really?” she says. “I just drove down to this m – – – – – -. Y'all so full of s – -. I swear to God y'all are so full of s – -.”

“I can’t even feel my arm. You just slammed my head into the ground, you do not care about that. I can’t even hear. He slammed my f – – – head into the ground. All of this for a traffic signal. I swear to God, all of this for a traffic signal.”

As a trooper pulls her to her feet and places her in the back of the police car, she yells to the bystander recording.

“Thank you for recording. Thank you. For a traffic signal. Slammed me into the ground and everything.”

The family thanked the videographer who shot the footage.

“I would advocate that any time that people see a situation that rises to a level of concern, that they video,” Lambert said. “Sandy herself said thank you.”

Bland and her family had been members of the DuPage African Methodist Episcopal Church in Lisle for about 18 years, the church’s pastor, the Rev. James Miller, said Thursday.

“She was a very, very accomplished young lady,” Miller said. “I just hope that the investigation is very comprehensive.”

Bland went to college on a band scholarship, Miller said. She played trombone, college officials said.

“She was a commendable, active young adult, and she was a very spirited individual who was prayerful,” Miller said. “We were very encouraged with her being a young adult and active because most times it’s hard to get that population active.”

Miller said he was, and still is, shocked about what he heard happened to Bland.

“It’s quite a coincidence that these events keep happening,” Miller said. “I think that it’s evidence of an unresolved cultural issue of some kind that these young African-Americans keep suffering some form of violence.”

The church will host a prayer walk and a petition signing at 10 a.m. Sunday as public expression of unity and a desire for justice, Miller posted in a message on the church’s Facebook page. The petition will call for a comprehensive investigation regarding the circumstances surrounding her death.

Lambert acknowledged the role Bland’s race is playing in reaction to her death.

“We’re not ignorant to that reality,” he said. “I also don’t think we should jump to judgment either. That’s why we want to speak to the investigator.”

Whatever the racial issues are in Waller County, Lambert said that neither he nor Bland’s sisters live there.

“We are not going to demonize that community,” he said.

According to the 2014 U.S. Census, Waller County is 70 percent white and about 29 percent black.

In recent years, the county has been a hotbed of racial incidents and tension, activists who live and work in the region said.

There has been a long controversy stemming from county officials’ refusing to allow students at the historically black Prairie View A&M University to vote in local elections. The county made national news when a scandal erupted regarding a middle school principal who forbade his students from speaking Spanish at a school district made up mostly of Latinos.

In response to Bland’s death, the Houston chapter of the NAACP has launched its own investigation. The group plans to request an independent autopsy and request police records to determine how she died while in a jail cell with no shoestrings or a blanket, said James Douglas, president of the local chapter and a law professor at Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

“We are going to be extremely involved in making sure that justice is served in this instance,” Douglas said. “We have a lot of concerns about this situation, and no leaf will be left unturned. It doesn’t make sense that this young lady who appeared to be healthy would have reason to commit suicide. Supposedly she had some damage when she was thrown to the pavement. She may have suffered a concussion or internal brain damage. That’s what we want to make sure.”

Bland graduated from Prairie View A&M in 2009 with a degree in agriculture, university spokeswoman Yolanda Bevill said. She was in the band at school and a member of Sigma Gamma Rho sorority.

“We absolutely mourn the loss of one of our bright students, and we’re looking for the Texas Rangers to provide us with a detailed report of what happened,” Bevill said.

Prairie View spokeswoman Candace Johnson confirmed that Bland was supposed to begin working as a summer program associate for the university cooperative extension Aug. 3. It was a temporary position scheduled to last through Aug. 31, Johnson said.

Bland recently left a job as a member of the administrative staff of Cook’s, a food service equipment and supplies dealer headquartered on Diehl Road in Warrenville.

“We are very saddened by Sandy’s death, and we are being respectful of the family, and the tragedy they’re having to deal with,” said a company official who declined to give his name.

According to the Harris County clerk’s office in Houston, Bland has two criminal cases that were dismissed and one for which she was convicted.

On May 27, 2010, Bland was arrested on charges of possession of marijuana during an incident that was not a traffic offense, a clerk’s spokeswoman said. According to court documents, she “unlawfully, intentionally and knowingly possessed marijuana in a usable quantity of under 2 ounces,” according to the spokeswoman.

On Sept. 10, 2010, the court signed a judgment of conviction for the charge, which is a Class B misdemeanor. Bland was assessed a penalty of 30 days in the Harris County Jail and given four days of credit. She was charged court costs of $373.

Before 2014, her Illinois driver’s license had been suspended three times because she had no insurance, according to court records.

On March 8, 2014, she was on suspicion of DUI and was given supervision in Illinois. Her license was suspended from April 23 until Nov. 18, court records indicate. Records show her license was due to be suspended a fifth time July 31 for lack of insurance.

“There’s a lot of people saying there’s foul play,” Lambert said. “We don’t know that there was. We don’t know that there wasn’t.

“We understand that we don’t know,” he said. “That’s what we understand right now.”