HOUSTON (CN) - Texas must let the attorneys representing Sandra Bland's mother in a wrongful death lawsuit review 100 hours of footage from the jail where Bland was found dead, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
Waller County Jail officers found Bland dead in her cell on July 13, 2015. Officials said Bland, 28, had hanged herself with a plastic bag.
Bland's family and friends challenged the story, saying she had no history of depression and was excited about her new job at Prairie View A&M University, her alma mater. The school is in Waller County. Bland died in the jail in Hempstead, the county seat, an hour northwest of Houston.
Bland had recently moved from Chicago to take the job.
Her death came three days after Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia arrested her during a traffic stop. He claimed she had tried to kick him.
The Black Lives Matter movement has portrayed Bland's story as another example of African-Americans being victimized by police.
Bland's mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, sued the Texas Department of Public Safety, Encinia, Waller County and two of its jailers on Aug. 4, 2015.
The department filed a motion to dismiss, which was rendered moot when Reed-Veal's third amended complaint dropped it as a defendant.
Reed-Veal's attorney Cannon Lambert, his muscles evident beneath a tailored gray suit, told U.S. District Judge David Hittner at Thursday's hearing that he's concerned about the integrity of the copy of the jail footage the state gave him because it contained glitches that made it freeze up.
Conspiracy theories abound about the true cause of Bland's death, as her family and supporters refuse to believe she killed herself.
"We want the original for testing," Lambert said. "I owe this family that, to put this issue to rest."
Some onlookers in the packed gallery, many of whom were wearing "Justice for Sandra Bland" shirts, agreed with the attorney. This got a reaction from Hittner, an experienced jurist with a no-nonsense reputation and a healthy sense of humor.
"Wait a second. I don't need any help from the audience, I see a lot of nodding, I'm doing the best I can," he said.
Hittner ordered attorneys representing Encinia and Waller County to make the video available for Reed-Veal's counsel to review, but declined Lambert's request.
"I'm not going to give it out for testing or anything else because there's criminal investigation going on," Hittner said, citing the perjury charge a Waller County grand jury handed down against Encinia in January.
The charge involves statements Encinia made in a 1-page affidavit he filed with Waller County jail officials that explained why he arrested Bland.
His arraignment is set for March 23.
If convicted of the Class A misdemeanor, Encinia faces a penalty of up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine. Shortly after the indictment, the state's department of public safety announced it had moved to terminate Encinia.
He is appealing the termination.
Encinia's civil attorney, Seth Dennis with the Texas Attorney General's Office, urged Hittner on Thursday to stay the civil case until Encinia's criminal case is disposed.
Dennis - his red socks with a cartoon frog imprint showing beneath tan khakis - turned a page in his notebook, his hands trembling, as he searched for precedent to back up his motion to stay under heavy questioning from Hittner.
"Basically why do you want a stay in this case? Just talk to me please," Hittner said.
"I believe that obviously it arises from the same incident. And in order to ensure Encinia gets a fair criminal trial that at this point we stay the civil case and let the criminal case play out," Dennis said.
"Yes, but how long is that going to be? No telling. How long do you want to delay? Years?"
"Until the completion of the criminal case, however long that may be."
"What's the fairness, then, to this civil case?" Hittner asked.
Lambert told the judge the state would have to show "extraordinary circumstances" to prevail on the stay motion, which he claimed it has not done.
Hittner also addressed a motion to sever brought by the Waller County defendants. If granted, the motion would split the county's case from Encinia's and put them on two separate tracks.
The county's attorney Larry Simmons said severance is appropriate because Encinia's traffic stop of Bland is "not the same occurrence" as what happened in the county jail.
An officer from Prairie View, a city in Waller County, was dispatched to take Bland from Encinia's squad car and transport her to the county jail because the city's cruiser had a cage in the back, according to the case record.
Encinia followed them to the jail. Simmons conceded there was a "very brief handoff" when Encinia went to the county jail and told staff why he arrested Bland and filled out a booking form, in which he stated that Bland was not suicidal or mentally ill.
Simmons offered an analogy: "It's really no different from someone being in a car wreck and that victim is transported to the hospital. At the hospital that patient is involved in a slip-and-fall. So she has a claim against the hospital. She has a claim for the car wreck. They're only related because they happened on the same day."
Reed-Veal's other attorney, Larry Rogers, had a different take on the link between the traffic stop and jailhouse tragedy.
"The problem is this is one continuum that leads to an injury and ultimately the death of Ms. Bland. It's not a separate incident. In fact the way and manner in which she is housed is specifically tied to what Officer Encinia said [to the jailers]. He accused her of assaulting him."
Hittner said he would rule on the motions within a few days.
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