Democracy Now, December 23, 2015
Family members and supporters are demanding justice for Sandra Bland after a grand jury failed to indict anyone for her death. Bland, an African-American woman, was arrested on July 10 in Prairie View, Texas, after she allegedly failed to signal a lane change. She was jailed with bond set at $5,000. Three days later, she was found dead in her jail cell. Authorities say she committed suicide, a claim her family rejects. The family has filed a wrongful death suit and wants charges against the officer who arrested her. Will anyone be held to account for Sandra Bland’s death? We are joined by Sandra Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal; her sister, Sharon Cooper; and family attorney, Cannon Lambert.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Family members and supporters are demanding justice for Sandra Bland after a grand jury failed to indict anyone for her death. Bland, a 28-year-old African-American woman, was arrested on July 10th when a traffic stop escalated into a confrontation with the officer involved. Three days later, her body was found hanging from a trash bag inside her jail cell. Authorities say she killed herself, a claim her family rejects. They’ve also questioned why Bland was arrested and jailed in the first place, and why she was kept behind bars for so long.
AMY GOODMAN: Sandra Bland had recently moved to Texas to start a job at Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater. She was driving near campus when Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia pulled her over and accused her of failing to signal a lane change. Police dash cam video, that captured part of the arrest, shows Encinia threatening to forcibly remove Bland from her car.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: You seem very irritated.
SANDRA BLAND: I am. I really am, because I feel like it’s crap, what I’m getting a ticket for. I was getting out of your way. You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over, and you stop me. So, yeah, I am a little irritated, but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket, so.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Are you done?
SANDRA BLAND: You asked me what was wrong, and I told you.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: OK.
SANDRA BLAND: So now I’m done, yeah.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: OK. You mind putting out your cigarette, please?
SANDRA BLAND: I’m in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Well, you can step on out now.
SANDRA BLAND: I don’t have to step out of my car.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Step out of the car.
SANDRA BLAND: Why am I—
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Step out of the car.
SANDRA BLAND: No, you don’t have—no, you don’t have the right—you do not—
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Step out of the car!
SANDRA BLAND: You do not have the right to do that.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: I do have the right. Now step out, or I will remove you.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As the dash cam video continues, Officer Encinia escalates the situation when he threatens to “light [Sandra Bland] up.”
SANDRA BLAND: Why am I being apprehended? You’re trying to give me a ticket for a failure—
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: I said get out of the car.
SANDRA BLAND: Why am I being apprehended? You just opened my car door.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: I’m giving you a lawful order. I am going to drag you out of there.
SANDRA BLAND: You opened my car door. So you’re going—you’re threatening to drag me out of my own car?
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Get out of the car!
SANDRA BLAND: And then you’re going to assault me? Wow.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: I will light you up! Get out! Now!
SANDRA BLAND: Wow.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Get out of the car!
SANDRA BLAND: Really? For a failure to signal? You’re doing all of this for a failure to signal?
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Get over there!
SANDRA BLAND: Right, yeah. Yeah, let’s take this to court. Let’s do it.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Go ahead!
SANDRA BLAND: For a failure to signal. Yeah, for a failure to signal.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Get off the phone!
SANDRA BLAND: On my school.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Get off the phone!
SANDRA BLAND: I’m not on the phone. I have a right to record. This is my property.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Put your phone down.
SANDRA BLAND: This is my property.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Put your phone down!
SANDRA BLAND: Sir?
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Put your phone down! Right now! Put your phone down!
SANDRA BLAND: For a [bleep] failure to signal, my goodness.
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Come over here!
SANDRA BLAND: Y’all are—y’all are [inaudible].
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Come over here now!
SANDRA BLAND: You feeling good about yourself?
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Stand right here.
SANDRA BLAND: You feeling good about yourself?
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Stand right there.
SANDRA BLAND: For a failure to signal. You feel real good about yourself, don’t you?
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Turn around. Turn around.
SANDRA BLAND: You feel good about yourself, don’t you?
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Turn around now!
SANDRA BLAND: What are you—
TROOPER BRIAN ENCINIA: Put your hands behind your back and turn around.
SANDRA BLAND: Why am I being arrested?
AMY GOODMAN: Sandra Bland can later be heard on video accusing the police officer of slamming her head into the ground. She said she had epilepsy, to which Trooper Encinia replies, “Good.”
SANDRA BLAND: You just slammed my head into the ground! Do you not even care about that? I can’t even hear! You slammed me into the ground and everything! Everything!
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Sandra Bland was jailed and given $5,000 bond. Three days later, she was found dead in her cell in the Waller County jail in Texas. On Monday, a Texas grand jury rejected charges in connection with her death. Although the prison officers wouldn’t face charges, Encinia could still be indicted when the grand jury reconvenes next month. Special prosecutor Darrell Jordan said the case remains open.
DARRELL JORDAN: It has been a very, very long day, for us, as well as the grand jury. After presenting all the evidence as it relates to the death of Sandra Bland, the grand jury did not return an indictment. The grand jury also considered things that occurred at the jail, and did not return an indictment. There are other issues that the grand jury is still considering, and they will take up those issues when we return next month.
AMY GOODMAN: Bland’s family is calling for charges against Encinia when the grand jury reconvenes. A wrongful death suit by the family names Encinia along with two Waller County jail guards, the Texas Department of Public Safety and Waller County. The family has also criticized the secrecy of the grand jury, whose deliberations are sealed. On Tuesday, protesters marched outside the Waller County Courthouse and in Houston to call on the Justice Department to bring federal charges against the officers involved. Sandra Bland is one of many African Americans whose death in police custody has galvanized the nation’s Black Lives Matter movement and sparked demands for structural change in how police treat people of color.
Well, the family of Sandra Bland is here now to talk about the case. We will be joined by her sister in a moment, but we are joined now by Geneva Reed-Veal, who is Sandra Bland’s mother. And we’re joined by Cannon Lambert, the attorney representing Sandra Bland’s family.
Let’s go first to Geneva Reed-Veal. Your response to the grand jury yesterday saying that they would not indict anyone in relation to Sandra’s death in the Waller County jail?
GENEVA REED–VEAL: I’m disappointed, but not surprised. I just have to say right now that we were looking for transparency, and that’s not what we have been experiencing in this whole journey here. So I’m, again, disappointed, but not surprised.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Cannon Lambert, as the attorney for the family, your response to this recent development?
CANNON LAMBERT: Well, frankly, I think you have to first understand what it is that a grand jury does and what it is, in general. A grand jury is nothing more than an appendage or a tool of the prosecutor. What they do many times is, is that they’ll convene a grand jury for the purposes of then saying, “Well, look, we submitted evidence to a grand jury.” They assess that evidence, and then they come back, and they realize that there’s no reason for there to be an indictment. But in reality, those secretive proceedings are shrouded with problems and shrouded with misconception. The bottom line is, is that you don’t know what evidence is being submitted. The prosecutor acts as the judge. There is no judge that actually oversees the proceeding. The prosecutor—excuse me—gets to cherry-pick whatever evidence they want to submit and then withhold whatever evidence they want to withhold. So they get to pick what it is that they want to present. And then, thereafter, they’re able to even go into using hearsay when they want to, unlike in ordinary judicial proceedings and the like. So, we’re not even allowed to be present, right? We’re not allowed to test any of the evidence that they offer. We’re not allowed to offer any evidence ourselves. So there’s a whole big problem with what it is that grand juries do in the first place.
But over and above that, the problem that I have in this particular case with this grand jury is, is that the five special prosecutors that were supposed to appoint—that were appointed by the DA of Waller County, they were supposed to be looking at this from the standpoint of assessing it as a homicide, according to Elton Mathis. But the lead special prosecutor, Paul Looney, two months ago, in a Huffington Post ad—article, he indicated they were not looking at Waller County to determine whether or not they had done anything criminal, but instead they were just looking prospectively to see if there was something they could do to suggest changes that they might make in the future. They didn’t look at this from the standpoint of trying to establish whether or not there was anything criminally done. And so, as a consequence, we find ourselves feeling very uncomfortable about this whole process.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. We’re joined by Sandra Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, as well as the attorney for the family, Cannon Lambert. And we’ll be joined by Sandra’s sister, Sharon Cooper. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking about Monday’s decision by a Waller County grand jury not to indict anyone in the death of Sandra Bland, who died in a Waller County jail cell three days after she was stopped by a police officer supposedly for failing to signal a lane change. We’re joined by the family attorney, Cannon Lambert; Sandra’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal; as well as Sharon Cooper, Sandra’s sister. Sharon Cooper, if you, too, could respond to the decision by the grand jury? Now, it’s not over. The case of Brian Encinia, the officer who first stopped Sandra, has not been weighed by the grand jury yet, but the actual—those responsible for her death in the jail cell have not been indicted.
SHARON COOPER: It is—I definitely would like to echo my mother’s sentiment, in terms of—I would say, just from a sibling’s perspective and being a surviving member of something as tragic as this, I will tell you that it is disappointing, and it’s heart-wrenching, but at the same time not surprising, given the fact that we are guided by excellent legal counsel and felt that we were a bit prepared for this to be the case in light of the lack of participation and transparency that we have received from the DA’s Office in this case, as well as the opposing side, in general.
I will tell you that I’m not all that hopeful that there will be charges brought against Officer Encinia, because in the five months since Sandy’s passing, the dash cam video was made readily available days after we went to Texas for the first time, and so there is unequivocally no doubt that Officer Encinia performed in an unprofessional way and that his conduct was gross at best, and so I’m not sure how much more time the other side needs to—how much clearer it can be for the other side. So I’m not hopeful that he will even be indicted on charges. And I personally believe that is a travesty, because I do believe that the stop and his behavior was the impetus for Sandy’s detainment and ultimately the reason why she’s no longer here with us today.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And before we get to the officer’s action, I wanted to ask Cannon Lambert about the investigation about the death of Sandra Bland in the cell. You’ve raised questions about the evidence—how the evidence was preserved, about whether proper fingerprinting was done of the—I think, of the bag in which she was found. Could you talk about that, as well?
CANNON LAMBERT: Absolutely. You know, one of the things that they say that they did is they did a thorough investigation. Well, I have difficulty with that notion, because if you do a thorough investigation and you follow the directives of the DA, like what was supposedly suggested, that you are going to address this as a homicide, you at the very least would take fingerprints of the instrument of death. The plastic bag, as we understand it, has not been even fingerprinted. Well, how can you suggest that you did an independent and thorough investigation when you haven’t even fingerprinted the instrument of death? So how is it that a grand jury is going to get evidence that they can—they can make a real decision from? I mean, that’s exactly the problem that you have, right? It’s an example of how whatever evidence they want to submit, they’ll submit. If they want an indictment, they get an indictment.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask about the prosecutor and what he has said, prosecutor Darrell Jordan. He said, “When I see them on the news”—he’s talking—this was a quote that he gave to the Chicago Sun-Times, and he’s talking about you all, the family of Sandra Bland. “When I see them on the news stating they have been left out of the process that’s not because of us. We’re begging to talk to the Bland family. We’re begging to answer any questions that they have. I have never heard of a criminal case where the prosecutor did not talk to the victim’s family … any parent deserves to know anything out there that relates to the death of their child.” Can you tell us what your allegations are in terms of the lack of communications with the prosecutor, Geneva Reed-Veal?
GENEVA REED–VEAL: I have had no communication with the prosecutor. I am not privy to anything other than an initial contact very early on in this proceeding. And I will have to let Cannon, my attorney, speak to that, because he was the one that handled that.
CANNON LAMBERT: Let’s be very, very, very clear. As soon as Mr. Jordan was appointed as a special prosecutor, he contacted us. We were in Houston while he was traveling on a personal family excursion to Indianapolis. He asked if he could meet us the following day. I told him that we were unable to do that, because we were going to still be in Houston, but that we were happy to do so, just let us know when he’d like to do that. He never again contacted us. Now, he is the investigator. He knows his process. He knows his schedule. I asked him in that one conversation, “Well, what are you investigating? Who are you looking at?” and the like. Those are the questions that this family has. If he’s serious about what he said about any family should have answers to questions that they have about their loved one, well, why wouldn’t he answer those questions? I can tell you he didn’t. I’ll also tell you that we never again heard from him, until after they came back with their determination that there was no indictment to be had. And so, now he goes on TV, and he suggests that this is when they’d love to talk to the family. You want to talk to the family after you’ve decided that there’s no indictment that’s necessary or that’s appropriate? That’s crazy.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you learn of the non—
CANNON LAMBERT: If you’re going to do an investigation, what you do is—
AMY GOODMAN: How did you learn of the non-indictment?
CANNON LAMBERT: Through the media. ABC13 in Houston contacted me by way of text and let me know. And it was 15 minutes or so after that that I got a text message from Mr. Jordan. And that was the second time that I had been in contact with him. So, the bottom line is, is that, frankly speaking, when you do an investigation, or when you’re trying to make a determination, you first have to do your investigation. You don’t make a determination and then back-door the investigation.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask about Officer Encinia’s actions. Sharon Cooper, you mentioned his unprofessional conduct in the original arrest, because obviously your sister would never have been in jail had he not arrested her and had the confrontation he had with her. This whole issue of whether the officer even reported on his official incident report exactly what happened, what do you know about that?
SHARON COOPER: I will tell you, and it’s a very—it’s another great example of very basic information that we don’t have. This incident happened on Friday, July 10th. We are two days out from Christmas, and we still don’t have the initial police report that Brian Encinia would have authored after this incident to memorialize all that transpired. What I can tell you is based off of what we’ve seen on the dash cam video. And although it’s painful to watch, I think it’s imperative to watch it frame by frame, so that you can see exactly the improper behavior that took place by Officer Encinia. I think it’s important to note that he clearly states to Sandy that he’s going to give her a warning, or that he was going to give her a warning, and there was a seismic shift in his behavior when he asked her—not demanded of her, not lawfully ordered of her, but asked her—to put her cigarette out, to which she replied, “Why do I have to put my cigarette out? Because I’m in my own vehicle.” So it was at that point that he escalates, not de-escalates, the situation.
And so, although we don’t have an actual police report, what I can tell you is, if you look at that tape closely and you zero in what he’s calling in to his superiors, he flat-out lies about what transpired at the stop. He says that he tried to de-escalate the situation. He says, “I don’t know why she got so upset. I never told her she was under arrest.” He told her she was under arrest after she said to him, “I don’t have to get out of my car. Am I under arrest?” And he says, “Yes, you are.” She asked him 14 times why she was under arrest, and received no response. So it’s the dash cam video, coupled with the strength of the bystander video, which shows the use of Officer Encinia’s continual excessive force after he yanked Sandy out of the vehicle and even pulled his Taser and threatened to “light [her] up.”
AMY GOODMAN: Now, after she’s arrested and she’s in jail, she faces $5,000 bond? She made a phone call from jail to a friend, and we wanted to play the voice message that was left on his voicemail.
SANDRA BLAND: Hey, this is me. I’m, um—I just was able to see the judge. 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 this 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, I guess, call me back when you can.
AMY GOODMAN: Cannon Lambert, have you ever had this explained, why she faced a $5,000 bond, if the charge was not signaling a lane change? Cannon Lambert?
CANNON LAMBERT: I’ll say this to you. Yes, sir—yes, ma’am, I’m sorry. I’ll say this to you. The bottom line is, is that when the bail is set, it’s predicated on what the charge is. And the falsification that Mr. Encinia engaged in was the impetus behind that bail being set in the way that it was. And so, we go back again. We find ourselves at least having to go back again to the stop. When he lied about what he did, he also lied about what she did. And that was the reason why she was in—she ends up in jail. So, you know, look, they’re saying right now that they still need to go and reconvene back in January. And I’m asking myself the same, you know, sort of questions that Sharon mentions. All of the evidence that they need as to what Brian Encinia’s conduct was is right on tape. And they’ve had that videotape for five months. What other investigation is there to do?
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the civil suit and the kind of evidence and information you’re able to gather for that civil suit and where it stands?
CANNON LAMBERT: Well, the problem with the civil suit is, is that right now we’re kind of—we’re in a holding pattern. One of the things that we’ve been trying to get from the very inception is the Texas Ranger report. The Texas Ranger report includes all of the witness statements that were taken, all of the evidence that was gathered. It constitutes where all of the information regarding what Sandy’s state was when she was first found. It will let us know if the individuals involved who found her took body temperatures, whether or not they gauged her rigor and livor conditions, those sorts of things, so that we’ll be able to determine the date and time of her death. The whole—the whole nine yards is going to be enclosed in that Texas Ranger report.
Well, the problem is, is that we’ve not been able to get the Texas Ranger report. Sharon mentions the initial police report. That’s one of the things that will be mentioned and will be contained in that Texas Ranger report. We can’t get that right now, because the defendants have—they’ve been claiming that there’s a criminal proceeding that’s taking place—namely, the grand jury. Well, the grand jury now has made its decision. I am specifically asking that Darrell Jordan, when he decides that he wants to address the media, that he speak to the fact that there is no reason that the release of the Texas Ranger report would impede the remainder of what it is that the grand jury has to do. All he’s got to do is make that reference and make it clear, because that is the situation, and everybody knows it. If he makes that representation, then there is no reason why we can’t get the grand—the Texas Ranger report, and therefore no reason we can’t continue to move forward in the civil action.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, this tragedy, of course, has drawn national attention for months now. And in a statement, Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said, quote, “There’s no doubt in my mind that [Sandra Bland], like too many African-Americans who die in police custody, would be alive today if she were a white woman. We need to reform a very broken criminal justice system.” In August, during a campaign rally in South Carolina, Sanders invoked the name of Sandra Bland and other men and women who have been killed by the police or died while in jail custody in recent years.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: We must be clear that when we’re talking about racism, we are talking about Sandra Bland, Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd. We are talking about Eric Garner. We’re talking about Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and many others, many, many others over the years whose names we do not know. And these people died unnecessarily and wrongly at the hands of police officers or in police custody. That must change.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Bernie Sanders in August of this year. I wanted to ask the—Mr. Lambert, the issue of what you’re calling for in terms of federal intervention at this point, by the federal government?
CANNON LAMBERT: Yeah, the reason we’re asking for federal intervention is because, number one, the DA, Elton Mathis, is the one that appointed the five special prosecutors that were supposed to be investigating this situation. And if you remember back, they were—they were saying that they had full and complete access to all of the evidence and that they had subpoena power and the like. Well, part of the problem with regard to Mr. Looney and Mr. Mathis’s relationship is that there is—it seems that it’s not—it’s not independent. And so, when you don’t have an independent examination of all of the evidence, and when you have the leader of that special prosecutorial group saying, “We’re not looking to determine whether or not there were any criminal actions that were engaged in by the Waller County police,” then you have to ask for outside eyes to look at the situation, because from the very outset, it appears, they never had any intention of trying to determine what happened in that jail.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Sandra herself in her own words. Sandra was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. She had become an outspoken supporter. She produced a series of videos called “Sandy Speaks” in which she discussed social justice and racism on her Facebook page.
SANDRA BLAND: I want the white folks to really understand out there, black people are truly—we’re doing as much as we can. Not all of us, but some of us are really doing as much as we can. And we can’t help but get [bleep] off when we see situations where it’s clear the black life didn’t matter. For those of you questioning why was he running away, well, [bleep], because in the news that we’ve seen as of late, you could stand there, surrender to the cops and still be killed.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s been a number of months, about half a year, since Sandra Bland was killed. And, Geneva Reed-Veal, your thoughts now, as we move into this holiday season, how you’re coping and the response that you’ve gotten to Sandy’s death?
GENEVA REED–VEAL: I’m coping right now day to day. I’m coping as best as I can as a mother. And I will say to you that anyone who has to openly grieve in this manner, it’s a tough thing to do, but you learn how to go on day by day, just saying to yourself you have to continue to get justice for your child. For me, right now, six months almost later, dealing with more questions than I had before, and not being able to have anything, access to anything, it makes it very hard to move forward, when you have an open window, a cloud over your head of what really happened. So, at this point, I’m still saying, “What happened to Sandra Bland?” I cannot be expected to believe what I’ve not been able to receive as evidence as it pertains to what has happened to my daughter. And that’s what I am being asked to do in some cases, by great lengths of folks.
You have people who are totally supportive of the family, that I am grateful for. I am grateful for those people because they will show the world that this is a problem. There is a problem here. And the fact that it’s continuing to be talked about, over Twitter, over the Internet, social media, there is a problem that exists that people want an answer to. People want a fix to this situation. And so, being a parent and watching all of this, and knowing that my daughter’s death has reignited grave concerns, it’s awesome, I have to tell you. Just the support is overwhelming. And I can’t even begin to say thank you enough to those who still stand in the gap, to those who still go out, to those who still talk about Sandy’s life, death, every day. There’s something out there about her case every day. And it’s great to see that people are still aware. Regardless of the lack of evidence that’s been shown to us and the world, really, people are still aware, and people are still keeping up with this, because they want to know what happened.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Cannon Lambert, why we’re talking about the grand jury reconvening in the case of Officer Encinia now? Usually, if a person is involved with—with an assault or there is a question, an arraignment happens within days. Now, granted, this is a police officer. But what—can you explain the order of how this is being investigated?
CANNON LAMBERT: Well, I wish I could, but it doesn’t make any sense. I mean, the reality of it is, is that I don’t believe the police should be treated any better or any worse, frankly, than any other citizen when it comes down to when you break the law. You break the law, and you should be held accountable, whether you wear a badge or not. So the bottom line is, is that when we look at what this situation really before us is, it’s a situation where you can clearly see that an unlawful order was issued, that he used excessive force, that he falsified his reports, you know, he illegally searched and violated her Fourth Amendment rights, and he should be held to account. So, when it comes down to why it is that they’re seeming to say they need more time to assess what his conduct was, I will be frank with you, I think we are all flabbergasted by that. It does not make sense. That’s the easiest part of this entire situation to assess, because it’s caught on tape.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us, Cannon Lambert, family attorney; Sharon Cooper, Sandy’s sister; and Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, speaking to us all from Chicago.