Texas prosecutor names committee to review Sandra Bland case

AP News
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Posted: Jul 27, 2015 10:49 PM
Texas prosecutor names committee to review Sandra Bland case

HEMPSTEAD, Texas (AP) — A committee of outside attorneys will assist the Texas district attorney investigating the death of Sandra Bland, the black woman who authorities say hanged herself in her jail cell three days after a traffic stop by a white state trooper.

Authorities also released an initial toxicology report for Bland on Monday, a report that two experts who reviewed it for The Associated Press said raises the possibility that Bland may have used marijuana while in custody.

Bland died in the county jail after the traffic stop for failing to use a turn signal escalated into a physical confrontation. Authorities have said Bland hanged herself, a finding her family disputes.

"I don't know if we'll ever get an answer to all the questions," said attorney Lewis White of Sugar Land, one of the committee members. "But our job is to get answers. There are going to be answers some people don't like."

The panel will have full access to all evidence in the case and the authority to subpoena witnesses, according to White and another member of the committee, attorney Darrell Jordan of Houston.

The committee will make recommendations on possible criminal charges to Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis, White said. If Mathis disagrees with them, the lawyers on the panel will have the authority to present their findings to the grand jury reviewing Bland's death, he said.

Two other lawyers are expected to be appointed soon. Both White and Jordan are black, and will be dealing with a case that has received international scrutiny and questions about whether Bland was treated differently due to her race.

At a news conference announcing the committee, Mathis declined to comment on the toxicology report, saying final findings were still being prepared.

The amount of THC, one of the active components of marijuana, in Bland's system was 18 micrograms per liter, the report said. That's more than three times the legal limit for drivers in Colorado and Washington, states that permit the recreational use of marijuana.

Robert Johnson, chief toxicologist at the Tarrant County medical examiner's office in Fort Worth, Texas, told the AP that a level that high suggests Bland "either had access to the drug in jail or she was a consistent user of the drug and her body had accumulated THC to the point that it was slowly releasing it over time."

But, Johnson added, "I have never seen a report in the literature or from any other source of residual THC that high three days after someone stops using the drug."

Another expert who reviewed the report, University of Florida toxicology professor Bruce Goldberger, said he believed Bland was impaired by marijuana at the time of her death. "I don't think it's possible to rule out the possibility of use while in jail," he said.

While Mathis wouldn't discuss the report Monday, one of his prosecutors, Warren Diepraam, said last week that he wouldn't rule out the drug being smuggled into the jail.

"It may be relevant as to her state of mind to determine what happened on the street," Diepraam said. "It may be relevant to her state of mind to determine how or why she committed suicide."

The attorney representing Bland's family, Cannon Lambert, didn't return a message from AP seeking comment on the toxicology report.

The Texas Rangers and the FBI are both reviewing the case. Jordan said he hoped to "provide another set of eyes" to the case and credited Mathis for opening up the investigation to extra scrutiny.

Mathis acknowledged the ongoing questions about Bland's death and the intense attention it has received, calling on people to await the findings of his office and other agencies involved in the investigation rather than speculation on social media.

Mathis said he wanted the committee to help the case move forward based on "credible evidence and not rumors."

Hundreds of people held a vigil and march for Bland on Sunday. Some carried signs that said "Justice for Sandra." Others called for a Justice Department investigation.

U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch didn't mention the Bland case at a previously scheduled speech in Houston, just 50 miles southeast of Waller County, but said one of her top priorities is ending an "epidemic of distrust" between communities and law enforcement.

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Associated Press writers Nomaan Merchant and Jamie Stengle in Dallas contributed to this report.