What Killed Sandra Bland?


Was It Suicide or Murder?


What happened to Sandra Bland?


On July 10 she was driving through Texas and on July 13 she was dead, allegedly having hanged herself by a trash bag in a Texas jail cell where she was being held in lieu of $5,000 bail for what had begun as a minor traffic violation. She was charged with “suspicion of assaulting a public servant,” a felony.


What happened to Sandra Bland?

Why is Sandra Bland dead?


That question has spread across social media and into the national news. That question has become yet another disturbing headline in a series of deaths of black women and men who have died or been killed outright while in police custody.


Sandra Bland was 28 years old. She lived with her extended family in suburban Chicago. On July 10 she was driving through Texas, having just gotten a new job in the agricultural department at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M, where she graduated in May 2009. According to her family, Bland had called home, excited by the new job and eager to start the next phase of her life.


Now Sandra Bland, whose life was just opening into a new chapter, is dead.

What killed her?


According to police reports released on July 20, Bland was driving through Waller County, Texas near Prairie View A&M in the late afternoon of July 10.A state trooper, Brian Encinia, pulled her over for failing to signal a lane change–one of the most minor traffic violations in the handbook and one for which few ever receive more than a warning.


As Encinia’s dash cam video, released to media near midnight EST on July 21 by the Texas Department of Public Safety shows, the trooper first went to her passenger side window–itself unusual–told her of the infraction and asked for her license. He sees she’s from out-of-state and asks how long she’s been in Texas. The exchanges are civil. He tells her, “Give me a few minutes, alright?”He then returned to his vehicle.


Time passes. A lot of time. More than five minutes of time on the 14 minute video. We wait. Bland waits. It’s hot. Her car is turned off. She is sitting in an un-air-conditioned car in afternoon heat in July in Texas having been pulled over for a minor traffic violation that she may not even have known was an actual violation.


Encinia returns to her car, this time to the driver’s side window where he has an exchange with the now irritated Bland. She says, “I know this is your job.” He says she seems “very irritated.” She says she “I am, I really am.” She explains that she changed lanes to get out of his way when he made a U turn, but “that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket, so yeah, I am a little irritated, yeah.”


This is where things begin to go wrong.

Encinia asks her to put out the cigarette she’s smoking. She says she’s in her own car, she doesn’t have to.

He orders her out of the car.

She refuses, saying she doesn’t have to and says he doesn’t have the right to ask her to.

He opens the door of the car. She says she doesn’t have to get out for a traffic violation. “I refuse to talk to you other than to identify myself.”

He tells her to get out. Now. Or he will remove her. She says she’s going to call a lawyer. He is grabbing at her. She keeps saying, “Don’t touch me, you don’t have the right to touch me, I’m not under arrest.”

He tells her she is under arrest. She asks why.

It will be the first of 14 times that Bland will ask what she is under arrest for during the video. While still in the car she keeps asking, “What am I being apprehended for?”

Encinia doesn’t answer.


Then he pulls out his taser and tells her, “Get out of the car NOW. I’m gonna light you up.”


Bland says “Wow,” and gets out of the car.

When she gets out, we see she is tall. Taller than Encinia. On police reports published by the Los Angeles Times on July 22, it lists her height as six feet, her weight as 175.


Remember that.


The final five minutes of video are its most problematic. After Encinia leads Bland to the sidewalk–and out of the range of the dash cam–we hear both of them yelling. She is both angry and clearly frightened. He is furious.


There is a second video, actually the first video to be seen on social media, taken by a bystander who was recording Bland’s arrest until ordered to stop by Encinia. In that video we see Encinia body slam Bland to the ground, leaning on her back. Bland is yelling that her head was hurt, that she has epilepsy, that she can’t even hear. Her voice has changed. She is obviously hurt, obviously on the verge of tears.


And then it is over.


A female officer goes with Encinia to search Bland’s car. A tow truck arrives to take Bland’s car away. We no longer hear Bland.


Encinia is on the phone with someone from his car. He is describing the events, although we know his description differs from what we have just seen. He says he’s not badly injured by the altercation. He says nothing about whether or not Bland is injured.

But there is a problem with the video. As we listen to the uninterrupted voiceover of Encinia, we watch as the tow truck driver gets out of the truck, goes to the police vehicle, goes back. Then we see him get out of the truck. Again. Again. But the voiceover is never interrupted.

Police say assert it’s just a video glitch. But the audio continues, no glitch.

Something has been altered in the tape.


Bland is booked. Her things–clothes, jewelry–are taken. The Los Angeles Times released copies of the documents [http://documents.latimes.com/booking-documents-sandra-bland/ …].


Everything has been taken–her dress, her bra, her underwear. Her jewelry, which includes a piercing below her belt. Her driver’s license.


There is no listing for her cell phone. The phone on which Bland was recording Encinia until he took her cell phone from her and put it on the trunk of her car.

Where is that cell phone?


The documents have a series of questions relating to mental health. Among the questions is one in which Bland notes she lost a baby and took pills to try and kill herself. This happened in 20015, she says.


But none of the other questions indicate any current depression. Any current mental health issues. Nothing to indicate Bland was suicidal.


There are booking photos of Bland in an orange prison outfit on the forms. Front, back.


On Twitter, people theorize she was already dead when these photos were taken, citing the position of her hair and her shoulders. But the eyes of dead people have a film that sets in almost immediately. And marks on her face show she had been crying—there are tracks down each cheek that any woman knows are the tracks of tears through makeup. It is a living face.


The photos are upsetting. But Bland is alive in them.

The question is, why is she dead now?


I have worked on several award-winning short films for which I wrote the screenplays. I have sat in the editing room. I know how glitches occur in editing. I know how editing is done in video and film to continue a voiceover while the film jumps, jumps, repeats, repeats. It’s actually a technique.


That’s not what was happening in the dash cam video of Sandra Bland’s arrest. It’s just sloppiness on the part of whoever made the edits. They thought we wouldn’t notice.

We noticed.


And the voiceover is clear: Encinia is covering his tracks. He’s telling the story he needs to have told. It is not the story of what we just witnessed. There are small differences, but they support his contention that Sandra Bland is violent. That he was injured. That he had to subdue her.


Bland was never violent. She never touches Encinia. But he touches her.


And all the while Encinia is delivering his voiceover on the video, Sandra Bland, who has not stopped talking for a second since Encinia first asked her if she was irritated,  is unaccountably silent.



The jail Bland was taken to is about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northwest of Houston.

We know nothing about her time in jail between the evening of July 10 and her death on July 13 except that she made a phone call to either a friend or family member, for which there is audio. She asks–like we have–how not using a turn signal could have turned into this.

There is video of when an officer goes into the cell—actually a small dorm meant to house five women–and runs back out again. This is allegedly when Bland is found dead. But we don’t see her dead. We don’t see how she has allegedly hanged herself.


The autopsy report shows the bruises on Bland’s back from the body slam we witnessed. There are some healing scabs and scars on the back on one arm which Warren Diepraam, Waller County assistant DA told the press were consistent with self-harming, self-inflicted cuts. There is a clean mark across Bland’s neck from the hanging.

There were no marks to indicate a violent struggle, Diepraam said.


I write mysteries. I know a little about hanging.

There are no marks to indicate that Bland hanged herself. According to most forensics, the hyoid bone in the neck, which protects the larynx, snaps in a hanging, strangling the victim due to a compression fracture. The main force is directed backwards. It is not always seen immediately in autopsy without a dye.

Bland’s hyoid was intact. Difficult to explain in a suicidal hanging.

Diepaam says that the intact hyoid proves there was no violent struggle.


That may be true. But the toxicology report, according to Diepraam, indicates marijuana in Bland’s body.

Where did that come from? Diepraam says Bland might have used marijuana in jail. Further toxicology tests must be done.

Diepraam told NBC News further tests were required to determine how much marijuana was in her system and for how long to conclude when it was ingested and what role, if any, it played in her death.


CBS News reported that Waller County Dist. Atty. Elton Mathis had requested that Bland’s body be preserved after the toxicology test found what was termed a substantial amount of marijuana in Bland’s system at the time of her death, denied that Mathis had ordered a second autopsy.


Bland’s family says she was not depressed. They say she had no reason to kill herself. We hear her on the video saying she can’t wait to sue Encinia.

Is this a woman who is suicidal?

What happened during her days in jail? Why aren’t there more phone calls? How long was she going to be kept in that jail cell for not using a turn signal, for not putting out her cigarette, for not being compliant?

Was she going to be kept there until she broke?

What did they do to break her?


Bland’s family wants a second, independent autopsy. The Bland family’s lawyer, Cannon Lambert, said in news conference televised July 22 that there was no evidence Bland had attempted suicide or been treated for depression. But there’s that comment on the police documents. There are the marks on her arm.

And there was the arrest.

And the days in jail, in a room out of “Orange Is the New Black” meant for five women, not one, alone, for days and days and days.

Days that never had an end in sight.


Sandra Bland’s funeral is scheduled for July 25 in Chicago.

She was supposed to be starting another chapter in her life.

Now she is dead.

What killed Sandra Bland?


Are we expected to believe that the six foot tall, 175 pound woman who was so sure of her own rights, so sure she didn’t have to put out her cigarette, so sure she didn’t have to get out of her car, so sure she could sue Encinia suddenly decided to take a trash can liner–not the sheet on her cot–and somehow find a way to hang her six foot tall self off the ground in that room, not put the trash bag over her own head to suffocate herself?


Are we expected to believe that the way we are expected to believe that dash cam video hasn’t been edited?

Are we expected to believe that the young woman ready to open yet another chapter in her life just suddenly gave up, abandoning everything from that new chapter to her family to the social justice movement of #BlackLivesMatter that she was part of?

Or do we believe that she may have been drugged and killed in that jail cell?


I know this: Sandra Bland was just driving and now she’s dead. Encinia was angry that she talked back, angry that she didn’t submit. We see it unfold on that video. We see he was even angrier when this young woman was taller than he was, more sure of herself than he was.


And now she’s dead.


Whatever killed Sandra Bland was caused by what happened on that stretch of Texas highway.

Whatever killed Sandra Bland was caused by the epidemic of racial bias in America’s law enforcement agencies.

Whatever killed Sandra Bland left us with the images of her full of fight, ready to take on justice for herself.

Whatever killed Sandra Bland left us with the images of her in the orange prison jumpsuit, her face streaked with tears.

Maybe Sandra Bland committed suicide. Maybe. But that traffic stop is what killed her. We need to know why. We need to hold someone accountable for her death.


Because #BlackLivesMatter.


Sandra Bland should have gotten to have her next chapter. And now she never will. So we must write it for her.