HEMPSTEAD, Texas (CN) - The former Texas state trooper who arrested Sandra Bland shortly before she was found dead in a jail cell hightailed it from his arraignment to a waiting car Tuesday, avoiding a gaggle of reporters and cameramen.
Brian Encinia came to court Tuesday in a gray suit and blue tie and pleaded not guilty during a three-minute appearance before Waller County District Judge Albert McCaig, who called Encinia's defense team and prosecutors in close to his bench for a conversation that was inaudible to the standing-room-only gallery thick with Bland supporters, who were watched closely by beefy sheriff's deputies lining the courtroom's walls.
A large projector to the right of McCaig's bench displayed the small-town courthouse's quaint yet direct rules: "Do not stick gum under the seats. You can be charged with a crime. Look at how you are dressed. You wouldn't wear those clothes to a funeral, don't wear them in here."
McCaig set the next hearing in the case for May 17. Encinia is fighting a misdemeanor perjury charge for allegedly lying in a police report about why he asked Bland to get out of her car on July 10, 2015 after pulling her over for failing to signal a lane change.
"A runaway grand jury and a rogue prosecutor decided to Monday-morning quarterback a police officer's decision, rendition and submission of a probable cause statement. It's unfortunate that we are here," Encinia's attorney Chip B. Lewis told reporters after the hearing.
Dashcam footage of the traffic stop went viral and brought worldwide media attention to Bland's story. The video shows Encinia threaten to taser Bland for questioning the stop, then pulling her from her car.
A Waller County grand jury indicted Encinia on Jan. 6. According to the indictment, Encinia stated in the arrest report that he "had Sandra Bland exit the vehicle to further conduct a safe traffic investigation ... such false statement being false in that [Encinia] removed Sandra Bland from her vehicle because he was angry that she would not put out her cigarette."
If convicted of the Class A misdemeanor, Encinia faces up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith claims Bland hanged herself with a garbage bag in her cell. Smith appeared outside the courthouse after the hearing, looking every bit the small-town Texas sheriff in his starched white shirt, cowboy hat and blue jeans. He kept his cool speaking into the microphones of TV reporters, his voice lost in the center of a ring of protesters shouting "Sandy still speaks," and "Tell the truth." Smith also seemed oblivious to the woman who screamed at him, "You are a murderer!"
Bland's family has challenged the suicide story and from outward appearances her death makes no sense. Why would a beautiful 28-year-old black woman who had just moved to Texas from her hometown Chicago to take a job at her alma mater Prairie View A&M University commit suicide?
Though her family claims she had no history of depression, Bland said in a video she posted in March 2015, "I'm suffering from something that some of you all may be dealing with right now. It's a little bit of depression as well as PTSD. I've been really stressed out over these past couple of weeks, but that doesn't excuse me from keeping my promise to you all by letting you know that somebody cares about you. Someone loves you. And you can go out there and do great things."
The footage is part of a "Sandy Speaks" series, a video diary that Bland started posting in January 2015 on her Facebook page. In the diary, she encouraged whites to join the Black Lives Matter movement in speaking out against police brutality.
That irony was not lost on Amy Lancaster, 39, who held a cardboard sign up to drivers passing by the courthouse that read, "#SandyStillSpeaks," referring to a social media campaign.
Lancaster is from Austin, Texas, and recently moved to St. Louis where she teaches special education, kindergarten through second grade.
She said she got involved in the Ferguson, Missouri protests after Michael Brown, an 18-year-old black man, was shot to death by white police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014
She said she's also skeptical of the official narrative about Bland's death given the upbeat tone of messages Bland posted before she died.
"It seems unlikely with that level of passion, that suicide was first on her list. And with this level of family support," Lancaster said, nodding toward the throng, Bland's mother Geneva Reed-Veal among them, gathered outside the courtroom.
Bland's death has brought a series of setbacks for Encinia, each accompanied by an intense media spotlight. Reed-Veal sued Encinia for wrongful death on Aug. 4, 2015. Next came the indictment, which led his employer, the Texas Department of Public Safety, to fire him on March 1. Encinia plans to appeal his termination.
Lancaster said Encinia can fight for his innocence in court, but his notoriety will follow him.
"He'll never not be Brian Encinia," she said.
Jeremy Collmargen, 37, walked by Lancaster, saw her sign and said, "I support everything you're doing."
Media reports have questioned why medical personnel at the jail didn't test Bland for epilepsy when she was heard in the dashcam video telling Encinia she suffered from the disease. But the sheriff's office said Bland refused any medical treatment, according to MSNBC .
Wearing a white cowboy hat on his way to court, Collmargen said he sympathized with Bland's case because his medical issues were neglected by Waller County jailers when he was locked up in the same cell where Bland died. A lifelong resident of Hempstead, Waller County's seat, Collmargen said his stitches on his hand came out and the jail staff wouldn't let him see a nurse.
"It turned out not to be a big deal but I could have got a staph infection," he said.Follow @@cam_langford
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