Autopsy results announced by the local prosecutor confirmed the police’s original party line this week, as reported by the New York Times: Sandra Bland’s manner of death was suicide - more specifically, reported on CNN.com, “self-inflicted asphyxiation.” The family has commissioned a private autopsy, and maybe a different result will be found. But let’s give the medical examiner the benefit of the doubt and take the findings as correct. That doesn’t absolve the police, and it certainly won’t absolve the corrections officers who received her reports of a previous suicide attempt and then left her in a cell alone.
Legal wrangling over responsibility for another’s suicide has come up most often in recent years in the context of bullying and cyberbullying. In March, a Massachusetts high schooler faced manslaughter charges for her alleged encouragement of the suicide of a classmate. Years earlier, also in Massachusetts, teenage acquaintances of a 19-year-old named Phoebe Prince were sentenced to incarceration for tormenting her until she took her own life. A former nurse encouraged suicide over the Internet and sits in prison for it today.
Unless evidence comes to light that she was encouraged to take her own life, relevant to Sandra Bland’s death is the concept of suicide by negligence, a basis for a wrongful death suit rooted in the idea that certain professionals and custodians must adhere to a set of practices (called the “standard of care”) to predict and prevent suicides. Two types of cases have arisen as major areas - psychiatrists and colleges. It’s also been found that jailers can be held responsible for negligence when inmates commit suicide. One jail in North Carolina has faced scrutiny in recent months after two suicides at a detention facility there, reports the Sylva Herald. There, corrections officers failed to follow even the most basic procedures for supervision of inmates and either criminal charges or a wrongful death suit is expected as a result:
The State Bureau of Investigation is conducting a criminal investigation that is independent of DHHS findings. District Attorney Ashley Welch said she hasn’t received agents’ report yet.
Jackson County can anticipate a wrongful death suit, said Joe Kays, Moose’s stepfather. He meets this month with an Asheville law firm that’s interested in handling the case.
Let’s put aside for now the legality of events - questioned thoroughly and eloquently by Jamil Smith in a piece for The New Republic - that led to arrest for what should have been a simple traffic stop. There’s a case to be made that if she did indeed commit suicide, Sandra Bland is a victim of her jailers’ negligence. As the quote above demonstrates, once the police arrest you, you’re in their custody; you are their responsibility, and preventable injury or death can form the basis of legal action. That’s why the alleged killers of Freddie Gray are under indictment.
Sandra Bland can’t be brought back, but as the media continues to bring to light instances of police brutality and misconduct, we may see a push for additional oversight so sorely needed to prevent similar tragedies. In the above-linked New York Times article, one legislator calls for a probe into jail practices where Bland died:
“When we lock somebody up, we have a responsibility to take care of them,” said Senator John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and the longest-serving member of the Republican-dominated State Senate. “What I’ll be seeking is a review of jail standards, much more than we’ve ever done before. I personally believe it is long overdue.”
The strongest argument that the police are responsible for Bland’s death, either in a criminal or civil sense, is that she informed her custodians in booking documents published by Los Angeles Times that she attempted suicide in 2014. I’ve been to my fair share of jails to visit criminal defendants. Many are placed on suicide watch, or in a medical wing with extra supervision, when they exhibit injuries, threatening behavior, or signs of mental illness. Why in the world wasn’t that done with Sandra Bland given the circumstances? Bustle also lists several other complications that could contribute to a negligence charge or claim, the most notable of which are an epilepsy diagnosis and possible head injury.
No matter the truth about Sandra Bland’s death, the media must keep on this story. We must demand better oversight of the police even if the federal government needs to get involved on a larger scale. Issues with the police expand beyond racial profiling, illegal arrests, and unchecked brutality. The government has a responsibility to citizens whose freedom is even briefly taken from them to ensure their safety and their rights. Anything less is unacceptable.
This post is commentary only and not intended to provide legal advice or counsel.
Image of Sandra Bland found on DailyKos.
Follow Lulu Yates, Esq. on Twitter @luluthelawyer.