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Sandra Bland, Jail Standards Top Criminal Justice News in 2015

In 2015, Sandra Bland's death jolted a conversation about inmate safety and mental health, while high-profile murder cases continued and Texas was criticized for the lengths it reportedly went through to find execution drugs for death row inmates.

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*Correction appended

On July 10, Illinois resident Sandra Bland was pulled over in Prairie View by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper for failing to signal a lane change. 

The encounter soon became heated, and the trooper arrested Bland. Three days later, she was found hanged to death in a Waller County Jail cell.

Her death – ruled a suicide – has left loved ones questioning that conclusion, mobilized social justice organizations and angered lawmakers, who denounced jail safety standards and mental health checks. 

But Bland's death alone did not drive conversations about criminal justice in Texas. In 2015, in-custody deaths in jails and a prison guard's killing powered discussions on inmate and prison employee safety. At the same time, Texas was criticized for the lengths it reportedly went through to find execution drugs for death row inmates, while concerns about mental illness in the justice system made a bipartisan comeback.

Here's a list of some of the top stories this year in criminal justice.

1. "Texas Seven" member executed

Donald Keith Newbury, 52, a member of the notorious "Texas Seven" gang of prison fugitives, was executed in February for the murder of Irving police Officer Aubrey Hawkins. Newbury was serving a 99-year sentence for aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon when he and six other inmates staged a brazen escape from the John B. Connally Unit near Kenedy, on Dec. 13, 2000, after overpowering 14 prison employees.

2. Rookie prison guard killed escorting violent inmate

Correctional Officer Timothy Davison, 47, was escorting inmate Billy Joel Tracy on July 15 inside the Barry B. Telford Unit in New Boston when Tracy took an object from the officer and used it as a weapon. Davison suffered serious injuries and was transported to Christus St. Michael Hospital in Texarkana, where he later died. Davison's slaying was the first of a guard since 2007, when 59-year-old Susan Canfield was killed during an escape attempt at the Wynne Unit in Huntsville involving two inmates who were later recaptured.

3. Truancy no longer a crime

House Bill 2398, which went into effect in September, effectively ended the practice of jailing students for skipping school. Bill supporters argued that criminalized truancy disproportionately affected minority and poor students. Criminal justice reformers hailed the measure as representative of a shift in law-and-order politics.

4. Law enforcement, courts evaluate mixed DNA

A new set of standards for crime labs analyzing evidence involving more than one person's DNA has the courts and law enforcement struggling to come up with a consistent way to evaluate evidence. So far there's no proof that the more conservative standard adopted by the Texas Department of Public Safety crime labs and others used by state prosecutors could eliminate a suspect already charged with a crime. But the new standard could reduce the likelihood a suspect's DNA is the only source of the material found at a crime scene.

5. Sandra Bland dies in Waller County Jail

Bland's death, ruled a suicide by hanging, has galvanized her family, friends and social justice organizations, who say she should not have been arrested. Her death also cast a harsh spotlight on the state's county jails, raising questions about how a known suicidal inmate could have been left unmonitored.

Lawmakers met in September to demand answers and change in how jails handle people with mental and emotional problems. Since then, the biggest change has been creating a new jail inmate intake form for county jails to better determine their mental state on the front end of the criminal justice system.

6. Mentally ill man suspected of killing Harris County deputy

When Dan Goforth's was gunned down while pumping gas, the incident highlighted the criminal justice system's failure to identify and help a man with a history of mental problems and an arrest record dating back to 2005. Goforth's and Bland's deaths became rallying cries for inmate safety and procedures to route the mentally ill to treatment instead of incarceration.

7. Execution drugs, legally secret

For the last four years, Texas has relied on a variety of makeshift drug combinations for its executions of inmates. But as manufacturers have put more restrictions on the drugs in an attempt to keep them from prison systems, the manufactured drug supply has dwindled. In 2011, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice turned to in-state compounding pharmacies, which can mix certain drugs on site. On Sept. 1, a new law went into effect to keep the names of execution drug providers secret. The legislation, Senate Bill 1679, was intended to protect the companies providing the drugs from harassment and threats

8. Panetti continues 20-year fight to avoid execution

Scott Panetti's fate has been in and out of court since he shot and killed his second wife’s parents in 1992. After a capital murder conviction and death sentence, his appeals have explored a history of severe mental illness — his first schizophrenia diagnosis came in 1978 — and tales of relentless, religious delusions that have persisted over the years. Now, his case is before a federal appeals court, which is weighing whether Panetti's mental state should be re-examined.

9. "Bernie" returns to courtroom

Convicted murderer Bernhardt Tiede II, better known as Bernie to those who saw the eponymous film that helped win his freedom, returned to an East Texas courtroom in October to fight the state's efforts to send him back to prison.

While Tiede's guilt is not in doubt, his life sentence for killing 81-year-old Marjorie Nugent in 1996 has been dismissed. Tiede's attorney presented evidence that he was sexually abused as a child, a mitigating factor that might have persuaded the jury to give him a lighter sentence had it been known at the time of his trial. The new trial starts next spring.

*Correction: This story originally said state lawmakers raised the age for offenders to be treated as adults from 17 to 18. That provision did not pass.

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Courts Criminal justice Health care State government Department of State Health Services Garnet Coleman John Whitmire State agencies Texas Department Of Criminal Justice Texas Legislature