HEMPSTEAD – Former Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian Encinia walked solemnly before a state district court judge Tuesday afternoon, and a few minutes later was out the door after pleading not guilty to a perjury charge stemming from his arrest of Sandra Bland last year.
Encinia stopped Bland near the Prairie View A&M University campus on July 10, 2015, for failing to properly signal a lane change. After a heated argument, the trooper arrested Bland for assaulting a public servant. She was found dead in her Waller County jail cell three days later. Her death has been ruled a suicide.
A grand jury indicted Encinia in January on a perjury charge after concluding there was evidence he lied about the circumstances under which Bland exited her car. The grand jury did not indict anyone for Bland's death. If convicted of the misdemeanor, Encinia could face up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine. His case is being heard in the 506th District Court in Waller County.
Encinia entered the courtroom Tuesday surrounded by Waller County sheriff's deputies and waited in another room until state District Judge Albert McCaig Jr. called his case. Bland's mother, Geneva Reed-Veal; Reed-Veal's oldest daughter, Shante Needham; and attorney Cannon Lambert sat in the front row, where they remained after Encinia left the courtroom. After the brief hearing, protestors and cameras trailed him from the courtroom.
In a statement, Chip B. Lewis, one of Encinia's attorneys, said his client did everything properly during his encounter with Bland. Lewis blamed the indictment on a "runaway grand jury" and "rogue prosecutors."
"This charge represents a fundamental misunderstanding of law enforcement procedure," Lewis said.
In the dashboard camera video, Encinia can be seen opening Bland's driver's side door and reaching in for her. She refuses to come out and the trooper threatens to use a Taser on her. In Encinia's report, he wrote: "I had Bland exit the vehicle to further conduct a safe traffic investigation." Grand jurors keyed in on that statement, a special prosecutor said.
Protestors chanted "Sandy still speaks," and confronted Waller County Sheriff R. Glenn Smith, yelling "tell the truth," as he walked into the Waller County Courthouse.
Encinia — who was fired from the Department of Public Safety for violating department policies in Bland's arrest — is also fighting to regain his job and faces a wrongful death lawsuit in federal court.
A media frenzy has taken the case by storm, Lewis said.
"We will not allow anyone to lose focus of the fact that what Mr. Encinia did on the date of Ms. Bland's arrest, from the moment he encountered her to the moment he finished filing his charges, was proper and is no way in violation of any law in the state of Texas," he said.
Reed-Veal said she was "OK today" and wants to see accountability.
"I am still standing," she added. "But for the grace of God, I still have my mind."
Lambert said his legal team has told special prosecutors they should not accept a plea.
"We made it very, very clear that we are of the mind that in order for the accountability to be held in the way that she's (Reed-Veal) is talking to you about, it is necessary that they try this case and seek the maximum sentence that they're able to obtain," he said. "Anything short of that is going to do a disservice, I think, frankly to this family."