At Fault Lines, Murray Newman explains how the death looks through the prosecutor’s eyes, and offers an optimistic expectation that this won’t disappear down the rabbit hole of excuses:
The law enforcement officials involved in the Waller County investigation, however, seem to be taking appropriate steps to address the death of Sandra Bland. As noted in USA Today, the Texas Department of Public Safety has already conceded the trooper who arrested Bland “violated the department’s procedures regarding traffic stops and the department’s courtesy policy.” That statement is a strong rebuke considering it comes so early in the investigative process.
Additionally, the Waller County District Attorney, Elton Mathis acknowledged that there was nothing evident as to why Bland would have committed suicide:
I will admit it is strange someone who had everything going for her would have taken her own life. That’s why it’s very important a thorough investigation is done and that we get a good picture of what Ms. Bland was going through the last four or five days of her life.
Since this was written, the Texas Tribune has reported that Sandra Bland’s death will be treated as a murder, even though it was initially ruled a suicide by the coroner.
While the Harris County medical examiner ruled her death consistent with a suicide, Mathis said it is now being treated as a murder.
“There are too many questions that need to be resolved. Ms. Bland’s family does make valid points. She did have a lot of things going on in her life for good,” Mathis said.
Or to put the obvious in English, there was no reason in the world why Sandra Bland would kill herself over being arrested for a traffic stop, and a bad one at that. She was on her way to a new job at her alma mater. People who want to kill themselves don’t drive to their new jobs at their alma maters.
But before we put Walther County District Attorney, Elton Mathis, on a pedestal for doing his job where many others wouldn’t, consider this:
The district attorney also said the dashboard video of the traffic stop in Prairie View that was retrieved from Encinia’s patrol car would be released on Tuesday.
After viewing the video, Mathis said Bland was not “compliant” with the officer’s directions.
“Sandra Bland was very combative. It was not a model traffic stop. It was not a model person that was stopped,” Mathis said.
Yeah, through the eyes of a prosecutor, compliance is what makes someone a “model person.” Murray explained that too.
The final factor that makes prosecutors uncomfortable about having to investigate a police-involved fatality is the fact that they generally have an underlying belief, regardless of facts and circumstances, that the victim did something to initiate the confrontation.
And Mathis, true to form, goes right for it.
As Bland is escorted by the officers to a patrol car, she thanks the person filming and is heard saying: “For a traffic signal, threw me onto the ground and everything.”
Because she wasn’t a model-y enough person for Mathis. Oh, how it would make things easier if people were just so much more compliant before they ended up dead in a cell.
This is yet another litmus test death, where some will lay blame for whatever happened following Bland’s inadequate compliance and combative behavior ameliorates everything that comes afterward. Separating issues is hard for some people.
But the video of the traffic stop isn’t material to the death in a jail cell. Put aside the fact that ordinary people, good people, aren’t thrilled at the prospect of being treated like scum, physically assaulted, because police officers need to establish their command presence by forcing them to eat asphalt. Even if Bland was the poster boy for non-compliance, it fails to explain why she died in custody.
It fails to explain why she died hanging in her cell.
If Bland’s solitary cell had a video camera, maybe we would be able to see for certainty who did what. Maybe we would even see why they did it. But without that, Matthis has a problem. If this was a death by anyone other than a cop, it could prove to be a difficult circumstantial case.
But if Sandra Bland didn’t commit suicide, which every factor suggests other than the end result, the circumstantial case becomes nearly insurmountable.
Any time law enforcement involvement leads to the death of a citizen, whether it be an “in custody” suicide or a police officer involved shooting, there is a type of role reversal for the local District Attorney’s Office. While defense attorneys are quite familiar with the role of standing beside an accused in the face of negative public opinion, it is an uncomfortable scenario for a prosecutor.
This is a very uncomfortable scenario for Mathis. It has to be, for all the reasons Murray cites. But if Sandra Bland didn’t kill herself, then one of his pals offed her. Those are the only choices. And Sandra Bland had no reason to kill herself, even if she was combative as hell during the traffic stop.
Waller County has a nasty, ugly racist history, but most of it flew under the radar because nobody was watching. This time, everybody is watching. Nobody is feeling particularly concerned about Mathis being uncomfortable, as they’re a little more focused on Bland being dead.