“What happened in that jail?”: Everything you need to know about the tragic & mysterious death of Sandra Bland

There's enough conflicting information about Bland out there to drive a person mad. Here's what we know so far:

By Colin Gorenstein
July 17, 2015 9:02PM (UTC)
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Sandra Bland (ABC7)

Sandra Bland, a 28-year old African-American civil rights activist from Chicago, was found dead in her cell at Waller County Jail in Houston, Texas Monday morning.

She had been booked in the jail just three days prior when a Department of Public Safety trooper claimed that Bland had been combative about a traffic violation.

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On Thursday, the Harris County medical examiner ruled that her death was a suicide. An unlikely story, friends and family say, who describe Bland as someone who was "mentally and spiritually strong" and never one to back down when it came to "speaking out about police brutality."

“I do suspect foul play,” one of Bland's friends, Cheryl Nanton told ABC7.“ I believe we are all 100 percent of the belief that she did not do harm to herself.”

At the time of the medical examiner ruling, social media began buzzing with the news of a leaked video. In it, the 28-year-old could be heard yelling, "You slammed my head into the ground." What was nowhere to be seen in that video: Any sort of alleged "combative" behavior from Bland. She did not assault an officer, as he would later claim.

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Friends and family of Bland aren't the only ones stumped by the potpourri of conflicting information. The family's attorney, Cannon Lambert Sr., went on record at a Chicago press conference that same day, saying "It didn't make sense." He vowed to make certain that the family "could get to a place where it does make sense.”

"How did a traffic violation end in death? What happened in that jail?" Bland's friend LaNitra Dean told The Huffington Post. "What happened in that jail? That’s on everyone’s mind."

Here's everything we know so far:

Who was Sandra Bland?

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Bland -- known among her four sisters as “Sandy B” -- was a 28-year-old woman from the Chicago suburb of Napervill. She graduated from Prairie View A&M where she planned to return on Wednesday, after accepting a job with the university. In the past, Bland had spoken publicly about her struggles with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Her sister Sharon told The Daily Beast this week that the idea that she would commit suicide was "unfathomable."

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Why did she go to jail? 

Bland was arrested outside of Houston Friday afternoon after she allegedly failed to signal a lane change, according to Trooper Erik Burse, who is a spokesman for Department of Public Safety. Burse indicates that Bland would have been let off with just a warning, but she kicked the officer, and was thus arrested.

Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith said that she was "charged with assault of a public servant" and that her bond was set at $5,000.  Smith later told ABC7 that Bland “had been combative on the side of the road.”

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Here's the footage that later emerged of Bland's run-in with the trooper, which tells a different story:

Where was Bland in the hours leading up to her death? 

Bland reportedly made a phone call at 7 a.m.

From The Daily Beast:

Before she was found dead of apparent suicide in a Texas jail cell, Sandra Bland called a bail bondsman hoping to get out.

“I talked to her when she first went to jail,” Joe Booker of Hempstead told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “I called her mother for her.”

Booker then hung up and didn’t respond to further requests for comment. It would have cost friends or family $500 to bail out Bland, Captain Brian Cantrell of the Waller County Sheriff’s Office said.

What did they find in Bland's cell at the time of her death?

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Waller County D. A. Elton Mathis told Click2 Houston that Bland was discovered at 9:07 a.m. on Monday after using a plastic garbage bag as a noose to hang herself. He also indicated that Bland did not share the cell with anyone else -- nor did she have shoelaces or a blanket in her possession.

Mathis also said that there were no cameras inside the cell. However, cameras monitoring the hallways showed that no one went in or out of Bland's cell during the time of her alleged suicide.

What are #blacklivesmatter activists saying?

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What do we know about the police officers involved in this case?

According to The Guardian, Waller County’s sheriff, Glenn Smith, was suspended for two weeks without pay by the city council back in 2007. He was also ordered to take anger management classes. What's more: Smith was placed on a 6-month probation after it was learned that he "manhandled a black suspect" and exhibited "racist behavior."

From The Guardian:

The Houston Chronicle reported that he was fired in March 2008, after more accusations of inappropriate conduct against the police department including humiliating strip-searches of young black people. Yet later that year the Republican was elected as Waller County’s sheriff. He was re-elected in November 2012, the same month James Howell, a 29-year-old inmate, was found hanged in a cell at the Waller County jail in an apparent suicide.

Smith was previously chief sheriff’s deputy in another area notorious for racial divisions, Sabine County in east Texas, on the Louisiana border. It attracted national attention in 1988 when three white former police officers were found guilty of beating a black inmate to death in the county jail.

What is #JusticeforSandy?

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#JusticeforSandy (also #JusticeforSandra) is a social media movement that emerged in the wake of Thursday-afternoon revelations that Bland did not assault the police officer who threw her in jail. It aims to spread awareness and push forward the conversation around Bland's wrongful conviction which ultimately led to her death.

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What's next for family members of Sandra Bland? 

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Family members are traveling to Texas on Thursday or Friday where they plan to meet with Texas Rangers.

Lambert said the family wants to meet with the lead investigator in the case and to 'drill down' into the facts regarding the African-American woman’s death, which has been a contentious topic on social media in recent days.

'When you’re left not knowing what happened to people in these strange circumstances, the mindset that you have is that you seek understanding,' he said.  (Chicago Tribune)

Friday morning, the FBI joined the Texas Rangers in the ongoing investigation. There is currently an online petition to the Justice Department to take over investigating her death.


Colin Gorenstein

Colin Gorenstein is Salon's assistant editor of internet and viral content. Follow @colingorenstein or email cgorenstein@salon.com.

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