HOUSTON (AP) — An investigation into the arrest of a woman following a traffic stop earlier this summer and her death in a Texas jail cell three days later should be finished "within the next few days," a state official said Tuesday.
Assistant Attorney General Seth Byron Dennis told a federal judge that the findings of the Texas Rangers' investigation of the arrest of Sandra Bland would be turned over to the Waller County district attorney, then submitted to a grand jury "probably mid to late October" to determine whether criminal charges are warranted.
A medical examiner ruled Bland hanged herself July 13 at the Waller County jail, about 50 miles northwest of Houston. Bland's relatives and supporters dispute that finding.
Bland was black, and her arrest and death came amid heightened national scrutiny of police and their dealings with black suspects, especially those who have been killed by officers or die in police custody.
Dennis' comments came during a court hearing on a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by Bland's mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, who sued the state trooper who arrested Bland, the Texas Department of Public Safety, Waller County and two jail employees.
Her lawyers told U.S. District Judge David Hittner, who wanted to set a trial date, they've been hampered by a lack of information from the state about the investigation.
Dennis said he spoke Tuesday with the lead Texas Ranger handling the case. "My understanding ... is it will be completed within the next few days," Dennis said.
Hittner told lawyers for Bland's mother that if they believed there were unreasonable delays getting information, "You let me know."
"How about now?" Thomas Rhodes, one of the attorneys, replied, drawing a few handclaps and murmurs from the courtroom audience that included more than a dozen Bland supporters, some of them wearing shirts with references to the 28-year-old Chicago-area woman.
Hittner said the hearing was intended to "provide a roadmap" to the civil case, and he peppered both sides with questions as they summarized Bland's arrest and jailing for assault after state trooper Brian Encinia pulled her over for a minor traffic infraction. Dashcam video showed their interaction quickly turned into a confrontation.
Hittner urged both sides to consider mediation or settlement but said if a jury trial was needed, he wanted to get it moving.
"I'm not going to ram the case to trial, but many people want it done," he said.
He gave lawyers for Bland's mother until Nov. 2 to respond to Dennis' argument that their lawsuit lacked specific civil rights violations they raised against Encinia and set another hearing for Dec. 17.
In her lawsuit, Reed-Veal contends Encinia falsified the assault allegation to take Bland into custody and that jail personnel failed to keep her daughter safe. An autopsy determined Bland hanged herself from a partition in the cell with a garbage bag.
"They gave (Bland) the tools, if she were suicidal, to accomplish that," Rhodes said.
Larry Simmons, the attorney for Waller County, said Bland gave jail workers inconsistent information about whether she was suicidal and said she was well treated while locked up. He also said a state jail inspector had advised the garbage bag and large trash container be inside the cells.
The Bland family attorneys contend jailers should have checked on her more frequently and that the county should have performed mental evaluations once she disclosed she had a history of attempting suicide.
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(Photo: Courtesy of Bland family/AP Photo)
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