Tag Archives: grand jury

5 Things to Know About Judge in Brian Encinia Trial

On July 10, 2015 Brian Encinia pulled over Sandra Bland for failing to use her turn signal. Encinia escalated the stop, according to the Department of Public Safety, and after attempting to pull her from her car, threatened her with his taser before taking her out of sight of the dash cam throwing her to the ground. On July 13, Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell. On January 6, 2016, Brian Encinia was indicted with a misdemeanor charge of perjury for lying about why he took her from her car. On March 22, 2016 he will be arraigned before Judge Albert M. McCaig.

1. Judge Albert M. “Buddy” McCaig was elected on a Tea Party Platform: Judge McCaig built his campaign upon anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant rhetoric heavily tinged with xenophobia.

From his 2010 campaign speech: “We were not attacked by a bunch of blonde haired Scandinavians, but by radical Islam. Say it and do something about it. In addition to that, a strong defense means protecting our borders from the 24-7-365 invasion going on from the south… Education is essential to liberty. I have great respect for teachers and educators. But, they have been inundated with rules and regulations that interfere with their ability to teach. They have been swamped with students who do not speak our native language… We know what the problems are, but what can we do to make it right? Short of armed rebellion, is there hope for America? I say that there is. We are not yet at a point of armed rebellion – and I pray to God we never get there – but it is time to act. Call up your neighbors, your sisters, your brothers, your sons and daughters, and tell them plainly that we must take back America now, before it is too late… Illegal immigration is the enemy, but it is not the primary enemy. The primary enemy is the progressive liberal ideas that promote illegal immigration; that sues our citizens; takes down our flag in favor of the Mexican flag; and that forces us to “dial one” for English. That is the enemy. “

2. Experience in presiding over high profile corruption cases: In 2014, in a case upon which Flint has cast new light, Judge McCaig chose to recuse himself from a case involving environmental justice when local authorities were accused of making back room deals that ran the risk of polluting local drinking water.

From the Houston Chronicle‘s coverage of the case: “At stake in the trial, is whether the 15-story dump can be built at the proposed site near Highway 6 and above an aquifer that provides drinking water for many in the Houston region. Opponents argue the project was discussed and moved forward illegally in back-room talks between Green Group Holdings and Waller County officials.”

After a civil trial ruled that the County Judge had acted inappropriately in making the deal to host the dump in back room meetings, District Judge McCaig blocked a criminal trial from proceeding.

From the Houston Chronicle‘s coverage of the case: “A civil jury in December ruled that Waller County – primarily County Judge Glenn Beckendorff and Commissioners Stan Kitzman and Frank Pokluda – repeatedly violated open meetings and public records laws by holding closed sessions with developers more than two years before agreeing to host the project… “My hands are kind of tied on issues of possible criminal prosecution because I was not vested jurisdiction over that,” Mathis said. “Until the district judge says otherwise or until the prosecutors send the case file back to me and ask me to take over, I can’t do anything.”

3. Oversaw 2015 mistrial of ex-Deputy Daniel Willis murder trial for killing Yvette Smith: On February 16, 2014, Daniel Willis shot local African American woman Yvette Smith as she opened the front door of her house. Willis had been responding to a call about two men fighting and was interacting with the men in the front yard when Smith opened her front door to check on the situation and Willis shot her twice as she stood on her front porch. Judge McCaig was brought in from Waller County to Bastrop County to preside over the case, reportedly because of his experience with handling the press. In a shocking turn of events, in September of 2015, the jury delivered a mistrial and Daniel Willis was released back into the community.

From the Austin Statesman coverage of the case: “The ruling allows Willis, 30, to walk free for now in the shooting death of 47-year-old Yvette Smith, sparking accusations of racial discrimination in Bastrop County and anger among Smith’s friends and family. Willis, who is white, shot and killed Smith, who is black, while responding to a domestic disturbance in Camp Swift in February 2014. Smith was unarmed when Willis opened fire on her.”

The evidence that The Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office had lied repeatedly in a blatant attempt to cover up the murder had not been sufficient to ensure a conviction.

From the Daily Kos coverage of the case: “Police not only claimed that Smith emerged from the home with a firearm, they stated that she ignored police commands. In essence, Smith came out of that house, according to police, ready to bring hellfire and damnation on police and they acted out in self-defense from an incredibly dangerous woman. This is a lie. A complete fabrication. When Sheriff Terry Pickering issued the statement, he was fully and completely aware that Yvette Smith wasn’t armed. No weapon was found on or near her. He knew this. The officers on the scene knew this, but Sheriff Pickering issued that statement anyway.”

4. Fought the end of the “pick-a-pal” Grand Jury selection in Texas: In a highly publicized series of letters. Judge McCaig, along with Waller County DA Elton Mathis, passionately disputed the end of the “pick-a-pal” system that was replaced by a more random process of selection for those to serve on Grand Juries. Concerned about how the new system would impact proceedings, on July 27th, two weeks after the death of Sandra Bland, Judge McCaig wrote a letter to Sen. John Whitmire, who had sponsored the bill to reform the Grand Jury System, complaining about the new process that he and DA Elton Mathis would have to use.

From the Texas Tribune coverage: “I remain convinced that the Texas Legislature has given us a law that is not only unworkable but is fraught with avenues of abuse,” state District Judge Albert McCaig Jr. wrote in an Aug. 21 letter to state Sen. John Whitmire about the new law, which ends the controversial “pick-a-pal,” or “key man,” grand jury system.

Throughout the month of August, as the time for Grand Jury selection in the death of Sandra Bland approached, Judge McCaig continued to correspond, exhibiting a particular focus on concerns about the Bill’s language around race.

From the Houston Press coverage: “McCaig claimed in the letter that the new bill required him to select a grand jury based on “seemingly subjective standards of race, ethnicity, sex and age.” In his letter, McCaig had a number of questions about the specifics of the bill, including “What is the difference between race and ethnicity?” and “Does the word ‘consider’ mean ‘must consider’ or ‘may consider’ or some other subjective standard?”

5. His Office hosted Sheriff R. Glenn Smith throughout the Grand Jury proceedings: Members of the press and supporters of Sandra Bland observed Sheriff R. Glenn Smith, Captain Brian Cantrell and other senior members of the Waller County Sheriff’s Office keeping a watchful eye over the Grand Jury proceedings from Judge Mccain’s office adjacent to the courtroom. This took place both during deliberations concerning Waller County Jail employees on December 21st which ended in no indictments, and deliberations concerning Brian Encinia on January 6th which ended in a minor indictment for perjury.

From my own report of the scene: “Emerging from Judge Albert M. McCaig, Jr.’s office, the room next to the courtroom, Sheriff Smith sauntered slowly past the Sandra Bland supporters to the door of the courtroom and took a seat on the bench. After a few minutes a man poked his head out and said to the Sheriff, “You’re good to go!” At which point, overcome with good humor, Sheriff Smith turned to Officer L. Watts and Officer J. Henry and delivered his crowd-pleasing line, “It wasn’t me. It was her! It was her!” before chuckling and sauntering back past the Sandra Bland supporters and into Judge McCaig’s office once again to rejoin his Captain of Patrol, Officer Brian Cantrell, and the others gathered there.”

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The Eyes Behind Us: Final Day of Sandra Bland Grand Jury

*This is the blog you write when your writing pen and your phone are your only form of defense while walking amongst armed men and women, and you hope that somehow those tools can make the people you care about safer. 

In the third floor Courtroom of the Waller County Courthouse, the Grand Jury finished their discussion of Brian Encinia’s arrest of Sandra Bland, as I stood with supporters and reporters in the packed hallway outside. Crossing my thrift store cowboy boots, I leaned against the railing at the top of the stairs next to an elderly, African American man in overalls. I do not know why he was there, perhaps official business, perhaps curiosity.

Looking to my left, I noticed a man in blue jeans, a plaid shirt and a jacket trying to look casual as he snuck pictures on his cell phone of myself and the others in the hallway. He was trying to fit in with us, but his posture gave him away as an undercover officer attempting to infiltrate.

Walking across the top of the stairwell to his side, I held out my hand, “Hello, I’m Hannah Bonner.”

“Hello,” he replied.

Photo from yet another person taking pictures in the hallway.
Photo from yet another person taking pictures in the hallway.

“So, are you here with these Officers?” I said, making polite small talk.

“No, I came from New York. I’m here to support the movement. I support the movement.”

“Wow, so you came all the way down from New York today to support us? That is so far to have come,” I inquired, confused.

“No, I mean I’m from New York. I live around here now. I am into movement things. I have been to other things to support the movement. I am here for the movement. I want to get involved.”

While he did look familiar, it was not because he had “been to other movement things.” He looked familiar because I had sat in front of the Waller County Jail for 80 days and I am an alive,  observant person. His name was actually Alex Kassem and word on the street was that he worked with the SWAT team in Waller County as well as in Houston, along with being a body guard for hire with experience serving in the Egyptian Special Forces. In truth, of all the people I have come across in my life, he is the one most highly trained in the use of lethal force.

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Looking to my right, I saw the elderly African American man taking a picture of “New York” on one of those simple phones that people buy for their parents for safety. As I spotted it, so did Officer S. Rutledge from the Waller County Sheriff’s Department. Not knowing I was looking, she dashed across the hallway and told the elderly gentleman, “You’ll have to come with me” as she pulled him quickly towards the elevator.

Something was not right. Granted, unlike the rest of the Courthouse, you could not take pictures on the third floor. Yet, I had watched dozens of people do so over the past hour with the only consequence being a simple verbal request from the officers not to do so.

I dashed across the hallway myself, forgetting “New York” for the moment. “Wait, where are you taking him, he has not done anything wrong.”

“He took a picture,” Officer Rutledge responded.

“I’ve been watching people take pictures all day, and all you’ve done is tell them to stop. Why are you taking him away?”
“Don’t interfere,” she said as the younger African American woman pulled the older African American gentleman into the elevator and a small line of officers blocked the entrance while the doors closed between us.

I did not know what to do. Turning to the reporters who sat on benches along the wall typing. I pleaded, “Did you see that? They are trying to intimidate him because he is local. You have seen people taking pictures all day and they did not take anyone else away.” Looking behind me, I saw some of the Sandra Bland supporters began to rush down the stairs and I realized that they were right, we had to make sure this gentleman did not disappear without any way of knowing who he was or how to check on him.

When I got to the first floor, there was already a bewildered group of supporters there being blocked from continuing down the hallway. This had never happened in the six months I have been observing.

At the end of the hallway, we could see out through the glass doors that Officer Rutledge was giving the gentleman a lecture. “Why can’t we go through?” the Sandra Bland supporters were asking. “You can’t come through, go out another door. You are just wasting time here.”

The group began to move up the stairs and out of the Courthouse through the back entrance ahead of me. As I came up the stimage3airs and around the side of the building, I realized I was alone with “New York” close on my heels. My demeanor seemed to have left him unaware that
I knew he had no intentions of “supporting the movement.”

I turned the corner to hear Jinaki crying out, “They have the elder.”

As we got to the entrance where we had seen Officer Rutledge with the gentleman, the officer and gentleman were gone.  the group told me that the officers had coordinated it for them to send us out the back entrance, while she brought him back in the side entrance to where we had been.

As I filmed my reaction, “New York” the “movement supporter” stood behind me pretending to support me and filming reactions that he would probably share later on with his colleague Officer Rutledge.

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Coming back in the entrance was a slow process as the group had to go through security one by one. On the other side, sat Officer Hood, a young African American officer who I had not seen before, chuckling to himself. Three African American Sandra Bland supporters went through security ahead of me and they wanded and patted down each one. As I came through I spread my arms and legs like you do at the airport and waited my turn. “No, we’re not going to do you,” the Officer said. “But you did all of them, why aren’t you going to do me?” They refused.

When we arrived back at the third floor, we discovered that Officer Rutledge had returned the older gentleman to the hallway and he was talking to a young man. Coming over we asked if he was okay.

“She took my license. She ran my license,” he said tearily.

“Why would she do that?” I asked.

“I have to go,” he replied.

“Well, we are walking you to your car,” we said to the gentleman to whom we had no connection apart from a new and profound sense of responsibility.

We walked down the stairs silently, and out the back door. When we reached the corner of the sidewalk, I finally said, “So what brought you out here to the Courthouse today?”

Turning towards me, I saw the pain of decades and perhaps generations well up in his eyes with unstoppable force and begin to overflow. It was too much heartbreak, for too long.

I put my arm around him slightly and then pulled it back and waved it wildly behind my back, beckoning to the three young African American men walking slightly behind us. I was beyond my depth. I did not have the resources he needed. Sensing what was needed, my friend Malik stepped forward and put his arm around the gentleman’s shoulder as we finished walking him to his car.

Once there, we got his phone number and the number of two of his relatives so that we could check on him from time to time. “She took my license,” he said as he dried his eyes, “She let me know if there was any tickets or problems, they could take me to that jail.”

[Now it may not be my place, but someone reading this blog is Officer Rutledge’s aunt or cousin or momma’s friend; perhaps it is your place to talk to her about this man’s tears and the history of generations that caused them. We are all in this together, after all.]

As he closed his car door and we began to walk away, I walked back and knocked on his door. He opened it and I said, “Can we pray before you go?”

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 3.06.51 AM“Yes, please,” he said.

I prayed that God would surround him with protection from the top of his head to the soles of his feet. I prayed comfort. I prayed justice. I prayed all the words I had left in my heart.

He closed his door, and we turned back to the Courthouse, surprised to hear “Left, left, left, right, left,” as a column of 21 Texas State Troopers marched directly toward me. They turned the corner, and so did the gentleman as he drove out of town.

A few minutes later the Grand Jury emerged from the side, and five special prosecutors emerged from the front to tell the press that they had indicted Brian Encinia with the smallest, paltry charge – my words not theirs – that they could come up with. They had indicted him for perjury in stating that he had a justifiable reason for pulling Sandra Bland from her car; rather than indicting him for the actual act of pulling her from her car and falsely Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 3.58.44 AMarresting her.

We did not see Alex “New York” Kassem again. Some of the other supporters said they had told him they knew he was an officer and he dipped out. We did call the gentleman to make sure he got home. He told me that he had gotten home safe but that a trooper had followed him all the way down the highway.

“I need to tell you why Officer Rutledge did that to me,” he said. “It was not because I was taking a picture, it was because of who I was taking a picture of. That man you were talking to at the top of the stairs, I recognized him. He has followed me before.”

It seems that while we thought we were looking out for him, it was the older gentleman who had been looking out for us all along.

We are all in this together, after all.

The Whistling Sheriff: Sandra Bland Grand Jury

“It wasn’t me. It was her! It was her!,” Sheriff R. Glenn Smith joked, Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 4.15.25 AMpointing at Officer L. Watts, a female, African American Officer on his force. It was individuals like Officer Watts that Sheriff Smith had referred to repeatedly in the media when arguing that there could not have been any racial component in Sandra Bland’s arrest and death because not all his staff was white.

On hard benches outside of the District Courtroom on the third floor of the Waller County Courthouse sat several Sandra Bland supporters, Officers from the Waller County Sheriff’s staff, and several members of the media. Many familiar faces sought or avoided eye contact as the same officers who had walked past those holding vigil for Sandra Bland now had to sit across from them while members of the press, who had once sweltered in the July heat, typed away on their laptops only a feet away.

When Officer Penny Goodie, of the Prairie View Police Department, emerged from the Courtroom looking dazed, she was quickly ushered down the stairs by a fellow female, African American Officer, S. Rutledge of the Waller County Sheriff’s Office, before a voice said that Sheriff R. Glenn Smith was up next.

Emerging from Judge Albert M. McCaig, Jr.’s office, the room next to the courtroom, Sheriff Smith sauntered slowly past the Sandra Bland supporters to the door of the courtroom and took a seat on the bench. After a few minutes a man poked his head out and said to the Sheriff, “You’re good to go!” At which point, overcome with good humor, Sheriff Smith turned to Officer L. Watts and Officer J. Henry and delivered his crowd-pleasing line, “It wasn’t me. It was her! It was her!” before chuckling and sauntering back past the Sandra Bland supporters and into Judge McCaig’s office once again to rejoin his Captain of Patrol, Officer Brian Cantrell, and the others gathered there.

A few minutes later, Sheriff Smith re-emerged from the Judge’s office whistling, as he had been wont to do several times in the preceding hours, and strolled up and down the hall before returning to the Judge’s office once again. It was a ritual that he would repeat several more times before the Officers seemed to tire of our social media reporting from the scene and demanded that “the public” leave at 5:00 pm; forcing everyone down the stairs and out into the quickly gathering dusk of evening, over the protests of local Waller leaders and television reporters who had never experienced such a curfew before.

The intentionality and persistence with which the Sheriff sought to flaunt what he saw as his triumph was unlike anything I had seen outside of slightly comedic scenes in television or on the stage. The exaggerated slowness of the saunter and persistent whistle was akin to a scene out of the early days of silent film, when the characters had to exaggerate their movements to get their point across without the assistance of audio. I was torn, uncertain whether he intended to be menacing or humorous; I suppose it was a little of both, for there have always been those who find amusement in seeking to intimidate others.

IMG_9454I could not help but wonder what these Officers on the bench across from me were really thinking and feeling. Certainly, I knew they were not too fond of me. I recognized Officer J. Henry from that time he walked behind Ranger and I as we sat in front of the Waller County Jail and joked to Assistant Chief Jailer L. Thibodeaux, “Got any room left in there?” (“For what?”) “For these two.” Yet, even so, putting their feelings for me aside, I found it hard to believe that they could feel proud of the behavior that their supervisor was exhibiting.

I have struggled for months to find a word to really capture the Sheriff’s particular brand of unassailable privilege that seeks to flaunt itself. The only word I have been able to quite find to describe it is hubris, but even that word seems to fall short of capturing its essence.

Or perhaps, on second thought, hubris does work. For it was that pomposity in the Greek tragedies that led the men of myth and legend to make decisions out of pride so excessive that it defied even the gods. In the Christian tradition, it was akin to the pride of Saul with his height, Samson with his strength, and Absalom with the flowing locks that were his undoing.

I have spent a good amount of time around the men and women of the Waller County Sheriff’s Office & Jail over the past five months. Enough time to have a certain fondness for some of them that makes me wonder if they feel trapped in the roles they occupy, or if they carry out their duties willingly. Enough time to have a healthy caution around others of them, whom I have watched as they have watched me; doing so long enough to know that the uneasy feeling I have in their presence never goes away. Enough time to know that even if they felt their stories were true, the Sheriff’s Office has wrapped them in so much subterfuge that it would be impossible for them to ever ring true now.

And so it happened, that we found ourselves ejected from the doors of the Waller County Courthouse by some of those same Officers, Rutledge, Watts, and Henry, to stand on the sidewalk outside of the Waller County Courthouse with a cadre of stunned television reporters who could not believe that they had really just been rudely tossed out of the building.

I could not help wondering, as I always do, why was it that the Sheriff always had his African American Officers be the ones to engage when there were people in protest or vigil.

Actually, no, that is not what I wondered. I knew the answer to that, as the well-informed reader will as well. The actual question in my mind was: how did these Officers feel about being used that way? They had to be familiar with the Sheriff’s rhetoric that he could not be racist because they were on his staff. And they had to have noticed, as we all did, that they were always the ones chosen to be on the front lines; from the time when Rutledge and other African American staff were sent into the lobby first to ask protesters to leave, all the way up to tonight, when she was once again put in that position, along with Watts and Henry, while white Officers and staff watched through the frosted glass door of Judge McCaig’s Office.

I know they seem to hate me, and they probably think I hate them; but in truth, I can’t help but love them and hurt for them and wish we could all be set free from the bondage of this patriarchal, white supremacist culture that prioritizes the comfort of white men over the lives of black women: whether it be Sandra Bland or Officer S. Rutledge.

After 4 hours of waiting in the dark, the five special prosecutors finally emerged from the darkened Courthouse and descended the stairs towards the presser. Darrell Jordan, the spokesperson for the special prosecutors approached the microphone and began, “After presenting all of the evidence, as it relates to the death of Sandra Bland, the Grand Jury did not return an indictment…”

Sheriff R. Glenn Smith watched through the glass doors from the hallway above (just as those gathered with him had watched through the frosted glass door of Judge McCaig’s Office), as we now listened to the news that neither he, nor anyone on his staff would be indicted in the death of Sandra Bland.

His victory seemed to be complete.

Yet, it would only appear that way to someone who did not know the way that stories about hubris end.

(Hint: It’s not over.)