Rangers report surfaces in Bland lawsuit; judge orders less redacted version, release of videos

By Gabrielle Banks
Houston Chronicle
Originally published Feb. 18, 2016

Before Sandra Bland’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit, they asked to see the complete Texas Rangers report detailing everything from the time of her traffic stop until she was found dead three days later in a Waller County Jail cell. Attorneys for the family have been requesting a copy of the document ever since Bland’s death last July.

The two-inch-thick Rangers report surfaced Thursday for the first time in a federal court hearing in preparation for the wrongful death trial scheduled for January. However, Bland’s family members, who have become emblematic of the Black Lives Matter movement, have yet to see a copy.

Having the Rangers report is paramount to moving forward with depositions for the trial, said Cannon Lambert Sr., an attorney representing Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal.

Lambert said the report could contain accounts from inmates in the cell nearest Bland’s about her emotional state and details from the officers, including her body temperature and state of rigor mortis when they found her.

Lambert said having the report would make a huge difference. “It is an enormous deal because it acts as the basis from which we can operate,” Lambert said outside the hearing yesterday, in a hallway where dozens of Bland supporters had gathered. “The people that were closest in time to these events documented what they found and saw, and we want to know what they found and saw.”

U.S. District Judge David Hittner asked Assistant U.S. Attorney Samuel Longoria to hand him a copy of the Department of Public Safety document, which the judge proceeded to thumb through before a packed courtroom. The FBI had redacted the DPS document to protect government officials’ personal information from surfacing.

Hittner said the document appeared overly redacted, to the extent that it would inhibit the parties from viewing some basic facts. He explained he had picked a page at random and asked Longoria why an officer’s name was considered personal information. The question was largely rhetorical.

The judge asked the U.S. attorney to provide him a less redacted version of the document on Monday, excluding only vital information: “Give me as much as you can,” Hittner said.

DPS, which is no longer a party to the lawsuit, declined to deliver its own report, on the grounds that it could prejudice the criminal case against the officer who arrested Bland, Trooper Brian Encinia, who was indicted last month in state court on a perjury charge.

Hittner also ordered the defendants to show Bland’s family the original dash-cam video from the traffic stop and more than 100 hours of video from five surveillance cameras at the jail.

Lambert said the copies he had seen, which circulated broadly on YouTube, had anomalies including loops, jumps in time and moments where the video appeared to freeze. At a later date, Lambert told the judge, he would request forensic testing to see whether the videos were altered.

The judge also heard arguments on a motion by Waller County’s lawyer to separate the wrongful death action against jail officials from the complaint against police.

Larry J. Simmons Jr., who represents the county, argued that allegations that jail staff failed to prevent a suicide should not be heard side-by-side with testimony about whether police used excessive force against Bland during the traffic stop.

Simmons said what happened on the road in Prairie View and what happened inside the jail are “two completely distinct transactions and occurrences,” and jurors’ reactions to the first set of events could prejudice their view of the second set.

A second attorney for Bland’s family said Encinia interacted with booking officers at the jail for about 15 minutes, telling them that she had been combative but was not suicidal – one of several factors that Bland’s family believes set in motion the circumstances leading to her death.

The judge did not rule on the request to separate the cases.

Seth Dennis, an attorney representing Encinia, also asked the judge to delay the federal wrongful death suit until the completion of the trooper’s criminal trial in state court. Hittner said he would also rule on this request at a later date.

Among the crowded gallery at Thursday’s hearing were Bland’s mother, three of her sisters, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, state Sen. Rodney Ellis and 25 to 30 other supporters.

At a later news conference outside the federal court building, Bland’s mother said she hopes her daughter’s death can act as a catalyst for change.

“Her death brought about a ‘rising up’ in all of us,” Reed-Veal said Thursday. “Before her death, she was just ‘our Sandy,’ but now she’s internationally known.”