Texas Probing Death in Jail of Woman With Chicago Ties

A 28-year-old woman who authorities say hanged herself in a Texas jail after her arrest for allegedly kicking an officer following a traffic stop gave no indication she was in such an emotional state that she would kill herself, her sister said Thursday.

The Texas Rangers are investigating the circumstances surrounding the death of Sandra Bland of the Chicago suburb of Naperville. She was found dead Monday morning in a Waller County jail cell in Hempstead, Texas, about 60 miles northwest of Houston.

During a Thursday news conference Elton Mathis, the Waller County District Attorney said he was found early Monday morning alone, hanging in her jail cell. "It appears she had used a trash bag to hang herself from a partition in the ceiling which was used to give inmates privacy from the bathroom area, from the sleeping area," Mathis said.

"Based on the Sandy that I knew, that's unfathomable to me," Bland's sister, Sharon Cooper, said at a news conference in Chicago.

The death of Bland, a black woman who was in the process of moving to Texas to start working at the college from which she graduated, comes amid increased national scrutiny of police after a series of high-profile cases in which blacks have been killed by officers. Bland's death has gotten attention on social media, with posts questioning the official account of her death and featuring the hashtags #JusticeForSandy and #WhatHappenedToSandyBland.

An attorney hired by Bland's family, Cannon Lambert, said some relatives believe Bland was killed and the family wants more information from investigators.

"This family is really looking to understand what happened," Lambert said during the news conference. "We don't understand this. It doesn't make sense."

Bland was a self-styled civil rights activist who shared videos on Facebook called called “Sandy Speaks,” featuring her observations on race in the America, NBC Chicago reported. 

Her friends and family have questioned the circumstances of her death. 

"Sandy became very proactive in using social media to bring awareness to police brutality," one wrote in an email to NBC Chicago. "Family and friends have no doubt that foul play was involved in this alleged suicide. She was a very outspoken individual who loved life, went to Church and loved her family."

Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis said he had no information indicating Bland's death wasn't a suicide.

"If I receive information that there's something nefarious going on, or foul play, we will certainly get to the bottom of that," he told the Chicago Tribune. "I understand there's some disbelief among some friends and family that she would do this to herself. That's why it's very important that the Texas Rangers be allowed to conduct a thorough investigation."

He said such an investigation is "typical protocol" when someone dies in custody.

Lambert and Bland's sister, Shante Needham, said they'd been working to get the money for bail when they learned that Bland was dead.

Needham said Bland had called her from jail on Saturday afternoon, telling her that she'd been arrested, but didn't know why. She also said an officer had placed his knee in her back and she thought her arm had been broken.

"She was very aggravated. She seemed to be in pain. She really felt that her arm had been fractured," Needham said, holding back tears.

"I told her I would work on getting her out."

The Harris County medical examiner has classified Bland's death as suicide by hanging.

A Texas state trooper arrested Bland on Friday in Prairie View on a charge of assaulting a public servant. Erik Burse, a trooper and spokesman for the Texas Department Public Safety, told the Chicago Tribune that Bland was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. He said she was outside the car and about to be issued a written warning when she kicked the officer and was then arrested.

Lambert said they didn't know if Bland had kicked the officer, but said it would have been out of character for her to do something like that if unprovoked.

Mathis, the district attorney, told Houston television station KPRC, "I will admit it is strange someone who had everything going for her would have taken her own life. That's why it's very important a thorough investigation is done and that we get a good picture of what Ms. Bland was going through the last four or five days of her life."

Bland had just accepted a job at Prairie View A&M, a historically black college in Prairie View. She graduated from there in 2009 with a bachelor's degree in agriculture and was set to go work for the school's cooperative extension on Aug. 3, said university spokesman Yolanda Bevill. She said Bland was to take a position as a programming associate, where she would be helping the extension oversee its summer programs.

Friends also said it doesn't make sense for it to be a suicide.

"Anyone who knows Sandy Bland knows she has a thirst for life. She was planning for the future, and she came here to start that future, so to say she killed herself is totally absurd," friend LaVaughn Mosley told KPRC.

A video posted online appears to show the arrest of a woman who was later found dead in a Texas jail. In it, an officer is seen pinning a woman to the ground with one knee.

She can be heard yelling that she can't feel her arm or hear. She asks the officer why he slammed her head into the ground over a traffic violation.

An attorney for Sandra Bland's family says he's been in contact with the person who recorded or posted the video and he believes it's authentic. Neither the Associated Press nor NBC News could  independently verify it. But the images are consistent with information the family gleaned from a jailhouse phone call they received from Bland before her death Monday.

On Thursday, Texas State Senator Royce West sent a letter  to the Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steven McCraw requesting the release of any video or recordings of Bland's arrest.

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Copyright AP - Associated Press
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