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Texas Senate passes bill to walk back Sandra Bland Act and investigate fewer jail deaths

Texas Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, right, proposed the bill to end the requirement to investigate jail deaths if a doctor deems the death to be natural.
Eric Gay
/
AP
State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, who represents part of Tarrant County and much of the area south of the Metroplex, proposed the bill in March.

The Texas Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would eliminate a requirement to investigate all deaths in county jails, making deaths from presumed natural causes exempt.

Advocates say if it becomes law, jails could escape accountability for medical neglect.

The state has required an outside law enforcement agency to investigate all jail deaths since 2017, with the passage of the Sandra Bland Act.

The new bill, Senate Bill 1896, aims to walk back part of the Sandra Bland Act. If a doctor determines that someone died of natural causes in jail custody, no outside law enforcement agency would have to investigate that death.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, proposed the bill in March.

“Unexpected or natural deaths, such as cardiac arrest or cancer, can and do occur but should not require full-scale criminal investigations,” Birdwell told the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice last week.

The bill now heads to the Texas House. It needs to pass both houses of the Texas Legislature and signed by the governor to become law.

If people die of natural causes behind bars, that doesn’t mean their deaths were unpreventable, Krish Gundu with the Texas Jail Project said.

“Sometimes when they investigate, they find that, yes, a 70-year-old had a heart attack, but also, that 70-year-old was prescribed heart medication, which he didn't get," Gundu said.

The bill could create a “chicken and egg” situation, Gundu added.

“You're going to call it natural without knowing how it happened, but then you won’t know how it happened if you don't investigate it,” she said. “It makes no sense at all.”

Tarrant County has its own history of deaths in jail custody that were declared natural but were revealed to be suspicious after increased scrutiny.

Two former Tarrant County jailers were indicted for allegedly lying about checking on an inmate named Javonte Myers, who died in his cell in 2020. His cause of death is listed as a seizure disorder, which is considered natural.

A Texas Rangers death investigation noted that Myers hadn’t been checked on, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.

Robert Miller died in Tarrant County Jail custody in 2019, and the county medical examiner’s office listed his cause of death as a sickle cell crisis — another natural cause. But a Fort Worth Star-Telegram investigation suggested Miller didn’t have sickle cell disease, and likely died due to being pepper sprayed repeatedly.

Questions still swirl around Miller’s case. The county never sent materials to a third-party forensic examiner to review the autopsy, and his manner of death is now listed on the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s website as “undetermined.”

When someone dies in a county jail, it’s often up to the Texas Rangers to investigate. But critics of that policy say there are some jail deaths Rangers shouldn’t have to bother investigating.

At a Senate Committee on Border Security hearing in November — unrelated to this bill — Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn gave the example of a man who died of cancer in Tarrant County Jail custody.

“We want accountability, but sometimes it’s like, golly, what could he be doing?” Waybourn said of those investigations. “A murder case or something else other than reviewing this case.”

Waybourn didn’t name the person who died of cancer, but Texas Attorney General records show a man named Kelvin Lavon Brown died of metastatic carcinoma of the liver in jail custody a week before that committee hearing.

Jails should strive to be more transparent, not less, said Cynthia Simons with the Texas Center for Justice and Equity. She criticized the bill as an attempt to hide information about deaths behind bars.

"Entire families and communities are devastated when there's not a proper investigation into the death,” Simons said. “And all it does is continue to sow discord, discontent and distrust between the community and government entities."

And getting information from jails is no easy feat, Gundu said. If this bill passes, there will be even less information available.

“Families who already struggle for answers are going to be left even more in the dark,” she said.

Got a tip? Email Miranda Suarez at msuarez@kera.org. You can follow Miranda on Twitter @MirandaRSuarez.

KERA News is made possible through the generosity of our members. If you find this reporting valuable, consider making a tax-deductible gift today. Thank you.

Miranda Suarez is KERA’s Tarrant County accountability reporter. Before coming to North Texas, she was the Lee Ester News Fellow at Wisconsin Public Radio, where she covered statewide news from the capital city of Madison. Miranda is originally from Massachusetts and started her public radio career at WBUR in Boston.