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A Suicide Or Something Else? Young Woman's Death In Jail Incites Suspicion


More details are emerging about the death of Sandra Bland. That's the woman who died while in police custody after being pulled over on a traffic violation in Texas last Friday. Her death in jail has triggered a wave of suspicion online. NPR's Martin Kaste has this report.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The suspicions have been fueled by a video showing some of what happened when Sandra Bland was arrested. Troopers have her on the ground, apparently handcuffed. She's angry at them, and she shouts her thanks at the person who's recording the scene from at least 30 feet away. One of the troopers walks toward that bystander, trying to get him to go away.


UNIDENTIFIED TROOPER: You need to leave.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm on public property.

KASTE: He keeps recording, and you can hear Bland in the distance shouting complaints about her treatment by the troopers.


SANDRA BLAND: You just slammed my head into the ground. You do not even care about that.

KASTE: You just slammed my head into the ground, she says. And she adds that she can't hear or feel her arm. Bland spent the weekend in the Waller County jail facing a charge of assaulting an officer. On Saturday, she phoned her sister about arranging bail. But on Monday morning, she was dead. Authorities say she hanged herself. Her family finds that hard to believe. This is her sister, Sharon Cooper, at a news conference recorded yesterday by WGN in Chicago.


SHARON COOPER: It is unimaginable and difficult for us to wrap our minds around the Sandy that we knew for this to be characteristic of her.

KASTE: She says Bland had a lot to live for. She was moving to Texas for a new job at her alma mater. Authorities say they take these doubts seriously. Elton Mathis is the criminal district attorney in Waller County.


ELTON MATHIS: I know a lot of people, especially the family, are wondering why would she do this?

KASTE: But at the same time, the authorities are filling in more details. Initially there was no information about what Bland could have used to hang herself, but now they say it was a plastic trash bag, an item routinely handed out to prisoners so they can clean up. There's also new light being shed on Bland's state of mind in the form of this video that she posted to Facebook in March.


BLAND: I am suffering from something that some of you all may be dealing with right now. It's a little bit of depression as well as PTSD.

KASTE: The criminal district attorney called this video extremely relevant, but it's not enough to put all doubts to rest. When referring to her death, he was careful to use the phrase - if she did this to herself. And there are still promises of independent investigations by the Texas Rangers and the FBI. And the whole situation is another demonstration of how things have shifted for law enforcement since Ferguson. In cases like this, they used to be able to count on getting the benefit of the doubt, but that seems to be less and less the case now, especially in the court of public opinion. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.