We’ll never know for sure what happened to Sandra Bland.
We know that she died in custody after being arrested during a traffic stop in Waller County. We know that she was found hanging in her cell, a plastic bag around her neck. We know that she was arrested during a traffic stop, which was caught on the dash cam and by a witness, so we know most of what happened during Bland’s encounter with officer Brian T. Encinia.
But we’ll never know exactly how the plastic bag that was around her neck got into her cell. We’ll never know with enough certainty to satisfy those who found her death suspicious—and there are many of them—if her death was a tragic accident, a result of negligence on behalf of the staff at Waller County Jail, or something even more nefarious. #WhoKilledSandraBland isn’t trending on Twitter anymore, if only because we’ll never get an answer that’ll satisfy all of the questions that are still lingering.
A grand jury convened in Waller County declined to issue indictments for the jail staff responsible for Bland at the time that she died. The Waller County Sheriff’s Department admitted to several mistakes shortly after Bland’s death—failing to provide mandatory mental health training for employees, and failing to perform mandatory hourly visual inspections of prisoners—while the Texas Jail Oversight Commission found that the department never performed the two-part mental health exam required by state law in Bland’s case.
We can’t be certain whether those things contributed to Bland’s death. We do know that a grand jury found that if there was negligence that led to her death, it wasn’t of the criminal variety. We also know that grand juries rarely indict in cases involving law enforcement, which means that the lack of charges against the jail staff shouldn’t come as a surprise.
For the most part, the only objective truths we have in the mysterious case of Sandra Bland’s death are the ones we can see with our own eyes: the things that happen in the video of her stop and arrest. And as Bland’s family (and the many who’ve followed the case) seek some sort of justice for a death that—at the very least—was tragic and based on an arrest conducted for dubious reasons, the hope that someone will be held accountable for what happened lies on what’s on the taped encounter between Bland and Texas DPS trooper Encinia.
On Wednesday, the grand jury opted to indict Encinia for lying in his police report. That charge—Class A misdemeanor perjury—carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $4,000 fine. (The Department of Public Safety, which has kept Encinia on administrative duty since Bland’s death, announced that same day that it’s also in the process of firing the officer—though a misdemeanor conviction wouldn’t necessarily bar him from seeking employment in law enforcement in the future.)
The charge stems from the affidavit Encinia filed after he arrested Bland on July 10. In the report, Encinia claimed that he “had Bland exit the vehicle to further conduct a safe traffic investigation,” a statement that the grand jury “found to be false,” according to special prosecutor Shawn McDonald.
The statement about why Encinia removed Bland from the car isn’t the only inconsistency—in the video, he tells Bland that she’s under arrest while she’s still in the car, before she could have possibly assaulted a police officer; in his report, he says that she was arrested because she assaulted a police officer. If he’s convicted of lying about the pretext for her arrest, it’d be fair to say that her arrest came under false—and criminal—pretenses.
The fact that the arrest that led directly to Bland’s death is being prosecuted as misdemeanor perjury has left her family dissatisfied. Bland’s mother told CBS Chicago about her frustration:
“To charge this guy with a misdemeanor, a Class A misdemeanor, are you kidding me? The world is looking at this going, ‘Are you serious? Really?’” said Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal. “I’m telling you, my texts, my phone, everybody is going ‘Are they serious?’ So there’s no one who believes that this is right for the crime. It just doesn’t fit.” […]
“The indictment should be followed by a conviction at some point, I’m going to assume, but where is the true indictment? Where is the indictment for the assault? The battery? The false arrest? Where is that?” she said.
Those are fair questions. Although the video doesn’t show battery or assault (though Bland can be heard on the audio saying that Encinia slammed her head into the ground), it does seem as though an indictment for official oppression—the charge in Texas for a police officer who uses power to arrest someone unlawfully—was a possibility.
Ultimately, every hope for justice for Bland’s family hinges on a perjury charge. That’s unsatisfying because it suggests that, had Encinia simply written his report so that it matched exactly what we see in the video, he wouldn’t have been committing a crime.
We’ll never know for sure what happened to Sandra Bland, but knowing that the only consequences for Encinia appear to center around when he sat down at his computer to type his report, is yet another bizarre facet of a case that’s never made much sense.