Sandra Bland's Sister Responds to Suicide Allegations, Lawyer Says Waller County Withholding Details

July 24, 2015
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Sharon Cooper

Sandra Bland’s sister.

Cannon Lambert

attorney representing Sandra Bland’s family.

Law enforcement officials in Waller County, Texas, have concluded that the cause of Sandra Bland’s death in police custody was suicide. But Bland’s family and friends dispute claims she was suicidal, and say there is no evidence she previously tried to kill herself before her traffic stop escalated into an arrest. We are joined by Sharon Cooper, who is Sandra Bland’s sister. Also with us is Cannon Lambert, the attorney representing Sandra Bland’s family. He says authorities have given the family only "piecemeal information" from the autopsy they conducted, and disputes the relevance of tests showing marijuana in her system. Cooper says Bland should be remembered as "someone who was unapologetically confident — and that’s OK in today’s world — as somebody who was assertive and somebody who truly stood for what she believed in.”


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Law enforcement officials in Waller County, Texas, have concluded that the cause of 28-year-old African-American woman Sandra Bland’s death in police custody was suicide. Bland was initially stopped for allegedly failing to signal a lane change. In a nationally televised press conference Thursday, Assistant Prosecutor Warren Diepraam said preliminary autopsy results indicate Bland hanged herself in her jail cell three days after the traffic stop escalated into an arrest.

WARREN DIEPRAAM: The only injury which was present on her neck or head was what’s called a ligature thorough or a ligature mark. This is consistent with a suicide, according to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Science, because the mark on her neck, which I will show pictures of at the completion of this discussion, is a uniform and consistent mark around the neck of Miss Bland. Had this been a violent struggle or a murder, you would most likely not expect to see a consistent and uniform ligature mark around her neck.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Diepraam said the report showed no defensive injuries that are typical in cases of violent homicide. But he said it did find indications Bland had tried to harm herself before.

WARREN DIEPRAAM: Suicide has become a possible issue in this particular case. As to that, there were on her left arm what the pathologist conducting the autopsy described as cut marks. There were approximately 30 cut marks on her left wrist, which were also in a state of healing. These roughly 30 cut marks were both in a state of scarring and scabbing, indicating that they may have been placed on her body roughly two to four weeks prior to her incarceration.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Earlier this week, Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith said Bland told jailers she had previously attempted suicide, but Bland’s family and friends dispute claims she was suicidal, and have called for a second autopsy to be conducted. They also say there is no evidence she previously tried to kill herself.

Many argue Bland should never have been arrested in the first place. She was in Waller County to begin a new job at Prairie View A&M, a historically black university. On her way to campus, she was pulled over for allegedly failing to signal a lane change. Dash cam video of what turned into her arrest shows Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia approaching the driver’s side of Bland’s car and asking her why she appears to be irritated. Bland responds, acknowledging she is a little irritated, because, quote, "You were speeding up, tailing me, so I move over, and you stop me." Moments later, Encinia tells Bland to extinguish her cigarette. Bland objects and points out she’s in her own car. At that point, Encinia orders Bland out of her car. When Bland refuses, Encinia threatens to forcibly remove her.

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.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: As the dash cam video continues, Officer Encinia escalates the situation when he threatens to, quote, "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!

AMY GOODMAN: A video taken by a bystander during the arrest shows Sandra Bland shouting that the officer had slammed her head into the ground and that she can no longer hear.

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!

AMY GOODMAN: Sandra Bland was then taken to jail. She had $5,000 bond set. Three days later, her body was found in her jail cell. Sandra Bland’s body was returned to the Chicago area after the first autopsy where she lived. Her funeral will be held there on Saturday.

As her case continues to draw national scrutiny, we go now to Chicago, where we’re joined by Sharon Cooper, who’s Sandra Bland’s sister. Also with us is Cannon Lambert, the attorney representing Sandra Bland’s family.

We welcome both of you to Democracy Now! Sharon, first, our condolences to your family on this terrible loss.

SHARON COOPER: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to the Texas authorities saying that Sandra committed suicide using the plastic garbage bag liner that was in her jail cell?

SHARON COOPER: I wish that I could provide you with a thorough response. Unfortunately, we have not received a copy of their completed autopsy or any type of the preliminary report. Everything that we’ve received to this point has been through the media, so I still feel very misinformed.

AMY GOODMAN: What was your reaction to the news conference yesterday? And do you feel they should have met with you before they held the news conference?

SHARON COOPER: Absolutely. We’d love to have documentation to at least look through it, understand it and pose questions. To this point, they have not provided us with anything, although we have asked time and time again since we were initially notified last Monday that our sister passed away in their custody.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Sharon Cooper, your response to the claims that your sister had a previous suicide attempt?

SHARON COOPER: What we’ve seen in the jail documents that they have referenced, again, have been seen only through the media. Nothing has been given to us directly. What I have seen, I can assure you that it doesn’t contain her signature, so we question the authenticity of those documents, as well.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And I’d like to ask Cannon Lambert, the attorney representing Sandra Bland’s family—Cannon Lambert, if you could talk about your response to the preliminary results of the autopsy report and what the significance is legally of the fact that they claim that a lot of marijuana was found in Sandra Bland’s system?

CANNON LAMBERT: First, thanks. I’ll be honest with you, the trickling of information relative to the autopsy is a little bit troubling. Normally what will happen is that you’ll get the full autopsy, and then you’re able to review it, as opposed to just getting piecemeal information.

That being said, as it relates to the legal aspect of marijuana being in her system, frankly, I’m not sure that it has any real relevance to either of the two circumstances that we find ourselves in. If you look at, for example, the stop, there is no question about the fact she was lucid. There’s no question about the fact that she was not in any way intoxicated. The officer did not look to try and arrest her on those grounds. And in fact, the documentation that they point to, though we don’t know the authenticity of it, as mentioned, they don’t make any reference of her being intoxicated or having been arrested because of intoxication. If you look at her responses, you can see that she’s responsive in a very real way, in a way that, psychologically or otherwise, she’s not altered in any way.

And then when you move to the jail aspect of this case, you know, the thing is, practically, on a legal front, it’s almost better for a civil litigation case if in fact she were to have obtained marijuana in the jail. That just belies any sort of real logical concept that they would have been doing what they needed to do at the jail, if she were able to do that. And so, you also ask yourself, too, about whether or not they did an adequate search. Presumptively, they’re going to tell us that they did. And how would she have brought marijuana into the jail to consume it, as has been kind of suggested? There’s no real legal relevance, as far as I’m concerned, as it relates to her having ingested marijuana, if in fact she did.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to read from the text exchange between Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis and you, Sandra Bland’s family attorney, Cannon Lambert. It is a remarkable series of texts. Mathis writes, "Looking at the autopsy results and toxicology it appears that she may have swallowed a large quantity of marijuana or smoke[d] [it] in the jail. Since your clients have possession of Ms Bland’s body, I must ask that it not be disturbed anymore [t]han necessary and that a proper chain of custody be kept so that she will be available for future examination by qualified experts. This will of course be very relevant in any future criminal or civil litigation and since the potential evidence is in your possession, custody and control..."

Then you respond saying, quote, "Why did Ranger Ellison release her body to us if they or you needed her to be preserved in a particular state? Wouldn’t they have done all they needed to do regarding your criminal investigation prior to releasing her to us? Please advise."

Mathis then explains, saying, quote, "They were trying to accommodate the family. Who did the autopsy here? Perhaps it can be avoided."

Lambert says, quote, "I expressly asked Ranger Ellison if she was ready for release and he told me that she had been released by Harris county coroner."

Finally, Mathis writes, quote, "She was. The tests they need to conduct now are not customarily done in in[-]custody deaths, but the large amounts of drugs in her body would need another procedure. If you can share your autopsy results or allow us to talk to your expert we may be able to work things out. No one had any idea she would’ve been smoking that much marijuana or possibly ingested it during the stop."

So this is a series of texts between you, Cannon Lambert, and the district attorney. How unusual is this? And are you going to be conducting a second autopsy?

SHARON COOPER: So, I think it’s extremely unusual for a couple of reasons. We actually were in immediate contact with the medical examiner’s office when we did find out that Sandra passed away in police custody. They made it very clear to us that it would be counterproductive to come to Texas to retrieve her body without the autopsy being completed. So, we asked for no accommodation. We asked that they complete a thorough and full investigation, given the reason for death that was given. We realized that that is challenging for some to accept; however, we were open to that. We just wanted it to be complete and thorough. So when we intercepted Sandy’s body, which was on Friday, when we got there, they confirmed with us that they had completed a full and thorough investigation—I’m sorry, a full and thorough autopsy of her body at that time, and that would have been inclusive of a toxicology report.

CANNON LAMBERT: And look, let me just kind of explain. Now it seems that he’s walking back the notion that he’s asked for what he asked for in those text messages. But those text messages were very real. And the reality of it is, is that we received those text messages on the same day that this family had brought Sandy back to prepare her for her homegoing. The troubling thing about those texts was, to us, that the initial autopsy was supposed to be full and complete. And it’s important that that take place, because, ultimately, this family just wants to understand what happened to their daughter, to their sister, to their aunt and so forth. And so, when we got the text messages, after they had released her to us—and mind you, we wouldn’t have been able to get her, absent them releasing her to us. But after they released her to us, we did our own independent autopsy. And thereafter, she was embalmed. So the concern that we had is, is that they were looking to try and do a third autopsy. Now, they’ve since said that’s not what they’re going to look to do at this point, so it seems that they’ve walked back from that series of representations.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Cannon Lambert, you’ve indicated now, and also previously, that what’s unusual in this case, one of the things that’s unusual, is the fact that you’ve only been receiving partial information, information has been trickling in about the autopsy report. Could you tell us why you think that is and how typical that is in these kinds of cases? Why haven’t you received the full autopsy report in one go?

CANNON LAMBERT: Well, and I’m not looking to try and evade the question. I don’t know the answer, really. That’s really more a question that, you know, you would almost pose to them. They’re in a position where they’re sitting on all of the information. They have the full autopsy, apparently, because it’s supposedly to be released today, but we have not received it as of now. And why it will be released to the media, when we’ve been asking for it for some time now, I’m not altogether sure. We have not received the police reports. We didn’t receive the booking reports from them. Instead, we’ve been getting this stuff through the media. Now, they might suggest, because I think they have said, is that they were looking to preserve the privacy of the family. But it just doesn’t really seem to make sense that you would be trying to preserve the privacy of the family from the family. It just doesn’t make sense. Instead, we just want to get our hands on all they have, so that we can look at it and find out what we believe took place, and then move from there.

AMY GOODMAN: A local ABC station in Texas obtained a voicemail that Sandy Bland left for a friend while she was in jail that weekend.

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: So, that is Sandy Bland herself, recorded in a voicemail message to her friend. Sharon, she had a $5,000 bond set? And did you understand that weekend what was happening about your sister being in jail? Had you, actually, yourself, talked to her?

SHARON COOPER: I did not, myself, speak with her; however, my older sister spoke with her. She spoke with her roughly at about 1:50 on Saturday afternoon, where she essentially shared the very same thing that you hear in that voicemail. She does say that she was stopped for a failure to signal a lane change and that she had a $5,000 bail, which of course meant that she needed $500 bond. And my sister told her, "Absolutely, I will get with the rest of the sisters and work expeditiously to get you out of there." And she said, "OK, totally understand." And to be honest with you, that voicemail there simply corroborates what’s on the dash cam, which is simply a disbelief that she’s in there with a $5,000 bond for a routine traffic stop.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Cannon Lambert, could you tell us what you would like to happen next, legally, in this case?

CANNON LAMBERT: First, I’d like to get all of the documentation that they have, photographs. I’d like to get all the reports they have. I’d like to get all the medical they have. I just want all of the information that they have. Then, from that, we’ll be able to make our way through that information. And we’re also doing our own independent investigation, as well. And then, ultimately, we’ll be able to chart our course. And whether it means that we end up bringing action or whether it means that we come to a conclusion that is consistent with what they represent, at least we’ll be in a position where we can share with the family what our findings are, and then, thereafter, they can make some decisions.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask about the Waller County DA. In 2014, Elton Mathis, the DA, was accused of sending threatening text messages after an African-American clergyman asked Waller County to provide data on prosecution rates by ethnicity. Reverend Walter Pendleton says after he accused DA Mathis of selectively prosecuting minorities, Mathis texted him with threats. Mathis reportedly told him, quote, "You are too stupid to know what that word means." The prosecutor cited examples of white public officials he had prosecuted, and then he texted, quote, "My hounds ain’t even started yet dumb ass. ... When I talk people [will] listen. Keep talking and I will sue your ass for slander." Now, I am saying these words because they are the text, and this was reported in the Houston Chronicle, of the DA that we’re talking about today, in response to a prominent local reverend who was concerned about selective prosecution by ethnicity. Cannon Lambert, can you respond?

CANNON LAMBERT: Well, you know, I can say this, that you never want to have a public official engage in that type of rhetoric. And, you know, we—there’s no question that there is an atmosphere where African Americans are having difficulties with the way that we’re dealt with with the police in many instances. Not all of the time, but there’s no question about the fact that we, as a community, we feel targeted in some way. And so—and I don’t—you know, I don’t make any bones about the fact that we, as African-American people, have every right to assert our rights.

And when I look at Sandy and I see that she is doing nothing more than saying, "I want to be treated the right way, I want to be treated equal," I say, "I celebrate you, sister." That’s the way I see it. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with making a stand when it comes to being treated fairly. You know, it is hard for me to get beyond the fact that this officer that stopped her made a U-turn right after looking her right square in her face, as she made a right-hand turn to go about her business. She didn’t do anything wrong when she made the right-hand turn. She didn’t do anything wrong when she was traversing down the street. It looked very much like she was targeted.

AMY GOODMAN: It is this DA, Elton Mathis, whose texts I just read to a reverend in town who was concerned about selective prosecution, calling him a "dumb ass"—it’s this prosecutor who will determine whether the officer in this case is indicted?

CANNON LAMBERT: Well, look, let’s just put it this way. I think that there’s a lot of things—and those things we’re aware of. There’s a lot of things that really cause concern. And so, while you want to try and feel like you give everybody the benefit of the doubt, you don’t dumb yourself down to the fact that there aren’t factors to be considered. You don’t pretend. And so, you know, the reason this family wants to see independently what’s going on is because, I think very much, you don’t want to put yourself in a position where you have to fully rely on others.

AMY GOODMAN: Sharon Cooper, can you tell us about your sister, Sandy Bland, who you’ll be putting to rest tomorrow? The funeral is set for tomorrow. Tell us about Sandy.

SHARON COOPER: Absolutely. She was a fantastic individual, very vibrant, extremely intelligent. I always felt like she was very intellectually vocal and curious. And what we’ve been able to bear witness to over the last almost two weeks now is her commitment to raising social awareness around the very types of issues that we’re discussing today. And the overwhelming feedback that we have received, worldwide, is just astounding. And I stand in awe of her. I’m proud of her. And to echo Cannon’s points, I celebrate her as my sister. I really do.

AMY GOODMAN: She did this very interesting series called "Sandy Speaks."

SHARON COOPER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And she was an outspoken member of the Black Lives Matter movement.

SHARON COOPER: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to play a clip of what she said. She would talk about social justice and racism on her Facebook page, as well.

SHARON COOPER: Sure.

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: Wow, that is Sandy Bland in her "Sandy Speaks" series. As you listen to her today, Sharon, your thoughts?

SHARON COOPER: I am amazed at the fact that she took the initiative to anchor herself in a movement that she believes strongly in and the fact that that voice is reverberating through social media, whether it’s Twitter or Facebook or Instagram. And I am amazed at how many people she was able to touch on a daily basis. And the irony of the fact that some of her concerns, right, we hear from her directly, in terms of, you know, what may have—may have been an impact to what happened to her ultimately.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Cannon Lambert, just to understand, and I think she’s saying this in the dash cam—that is, the police dash cam—is she’s saying that she didn’t signal when she was changing lanes, because she was changing lanes because the cop was coming up on her. And like many people, she might have been very nervous at that moment. That was number one. And number two, if they thought she was suicidal, if she said she had attempted suicide in the past, why wasn’t she under suicide watch? Why was there this large garbage can in the middle of the cell she was in with a plastic lining in it?

CANNON LAMBERT: Well, that’s part of it, right? I mean, if they do know that she has certain tendencies, then they really have significant problems, because you have to do certain things to ensure that the people that are under your charge are safe. And so, it’s kind of a sword that cuts either way for them. And I think what you’ve heard from this family is, is that they can’t conceive of it, because that’s just not who she was to them. They can’t conceive of Sandy killing herself, and it’s because they, in their interaction with her, walk away just thinking that it’s not fathomable. But, you know, the reality of it is, is that if that did occur and she was under their charge, they have certain obligations. And if they fail to meet those obligations, then there’s going to be some accountability that has to be had.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Sharon, she had just gotten a job at her alma mater, at Prairie View A&M, a historically black college in Waller?

SHARON COOPER: Yes. Yes, ma’am. She was thrilled about it. I can tell you that my mom and myself, we’re fortunate enough to have some final voicemail messages from her where you can hear the inflection of joy and excitement in her voice to be able to do what most of us love to do, which is secure new employment opportunities and pursue our dreams. And that’s exactly what she was doing.

AMY GOODMAN: Your mom raised you as a single mom. How many sisters do you have?

SHARON COOPER: There are five of us. We refer to ourselves as the Fave Five.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you want us to remember Sandy?

SHARON COOPER: As someone who was unapologetically confident—and that’s OK in today’s world—as somebody who was assertive and somebody who truly stood for what she believed in.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Sharon Cooper is Sandra Bland’s sister. Sandra Bland will be laid to rest, the funeral is tomorrow. Cannon Lambert is the attorney representing Sandra Bland’s family. They’re speaking to us from Chicago.

When we come back, we’ll be joined by the three women who started the Black Lives Matter movement, which Sandy Bland considered herself a proud member of. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute.


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