HOUSTON (AP) — A judge on Thursday set a 2017 trial date for a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the family of a black woman who died in a Texas jail cell three days after her arrest during a contentious traffic stop last summer.
U.S. District Judge David Hittner set trial for Jan. 23, 2017, for the lawsuit filed by the family of Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old Chicago-area woman whose death July 13 was ruled by a medical examiner to be a suicide. Her family disputes the finding and is seeking unspecified damages from the Texas Department of Public Safety, the white state trooper who arrested her, Waller County and two jailers.
Cannon Lambert, the Bland family's lead attorney, told Hittner he couldn't accept the suicide finding — that she hung herself in her jail cell by using a plastic garbage bag as a ligature — because his legal team hasn't been able to examine the report of an investigation of the case by the Texas Rangers following Bland's death.
"We've not had occasion to assess fingerprints on the ligature," Lambert told the judge. "A lot of information we frankly don't have. We're not able to finish our own medical investigation."
Asked by Hittner whether he disputed the characterization of suicide, Lambert replied: "That's right. It's undetermined."
Lambert later made the same comments outside the courthouse in downtown Houston, where scores of chanting Bland supporters clogged the sidewalk. Several dozen of them were inside the courtroom during the hourlong status hearing, and Hittner allowed the courtroom doors to stay open so people outside in the hall could listen.
Attorneys for Waller County have argued that Bland killed herself because she was despondent over her relatives' refusal to quickly bail her out of jail.
The Rangers' report is part of evidence presented to a Waller County grand jury that's been considering whether to issue criminal indictments in the case. Seth Dennis, an assistant Texas attorney general, said even after grand jury proceedings are complete, he may not be able to provide a copy of the report for the civil case if there's an ongoing criminal matter.
Bland's death occurred amid heightened scrutiny nationwide of police and their dealings with black suspects, especially those who have been killed by officers or die in police custody.
Attorneys for Bland's mother insisted the traffic stop was a clear violation of constitutional protections.
Dashcam video from the trooper's patrol car showed the interaction between Bland and the trooper, Brian Encinia, quickly turned into a confrontation. Bland was arrested for assaulting him after she balked at getting out of her car. He had pulled her over in Prairie View in Waller County, about 50 miles northwest of Houston, for making an improper lane change.
"I'm not OK," Geneva Reed-Veal, Bland's mother, said after Thursday's hearing. "My daughter is gone. ... I walked into these (courthouse) doors with continuations, dates and delays. I'm coming out of these doors with continuations, dates and delays."