Changes for Bexar County inmate death investigations, may be more with Sandra Bland Act
SAN ANTONIO —
Last summer, there were 4 inmate deaths in the Bexar County jail in as many weeks and all 4 were determined to be suicide.
This series of in custody deaths has left family members with questions about the investigations into their sons' deaths.
On the morning after News 4 reported the Bexar County Jail had taken steps to better manage inmates with mental health issues, Victor Casas was pronounced dead.
Less than 2 weeks later on July 9, 2016, Jonathan Campos was found dead at the jail.
On July 15, 2016, it was reported Jesus Lopez was found hanging by a sheet in his cell.
A week later, Bexar County reported a fourth inmate, Melvin McKinney was found unresponsive at the jail.
"I can't believe he's not here. I can't believe my son's not here," said Jesus' mother, Terry Lopez.
Lopez has made it clear she does not think her son's death was a suicide, recalling, "scratches on his eyes, the big bruise on his leg, the nail dug into his right shoulder."
Lopez said an investigator told her a small bottle was found in the sheet her son used to hang himself and also that the bottle was thrown away.
"He threw it away not thinking it was necessary to keep it," Lopez said. "I said this is a crime scene, why would you throw it away?"
"Any little piece of evidence can be helpful," said former Harris County Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Joye Carter. "If you have a garroting situation where someone has used a tool to tighten a noose, then you want to be able to look at that and if you could, be able to do fingerprints."
"I'm never gonna have closure," Lopez said.
Francis Campos said she was warned by her grandson, 22 year old Jonathan Campos.
"He said, grandma, the guards here, they're beating on me," Campos said.
She also remembers he had stitches across one eye when his mother went to visit him.
A few days later, Jonathan was reportedly found hanging in his cell with a bed sheet tied to a fixture on the wall.
The Bexar County Medical Examiner ruled his death a suicide.
Despite this and a review by Dr. Carter, who said his injuries were consistent with suicide, Campos does not think here grandson's death was self-inflicted.
Increasing her suspicion, was the fact that family members were not allowed to see Jonathan's body while at the Bexar County Medical Examiners Office. Chief M.E., Dr. Randall Frost said, viewing bodies has never been allowed in this office due to inadequate space.
"I think it is unusual so that struck me, you know when I read," Dr. Carter said. "I said, oh, I can see why that family is wishing that they could see."
There is also no video that shows the death of any of these inmates.
"I would like for him to find the piece of the video that's missing at the time that they say my grandson hung himself," Campos said.
A couple days after Jonathan's death, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards made an unannounced visit.
"We did have a concern. Bexar County, in years past, had actually engaged medical professionals and suicide prevention experts," said Texas Commission on Jail Standards Executive Director, Brandon Wood.
During the review, there was an issue with video of a pod area that appeared compressed.
State inspectors noting the camera and recording device times did not match up.
"The inspector did, I believe, generate a technical assistance memo identifying an area where they could probably tighten up their procedures and make sure that they could address those situations," Wood said.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar, who was not in office during the time of the suicides, said he is committed to ensuring more thorough investigations for all in-custody deaths.
"We are making sure that our detention supervisors who may not always be trained as law enforcement officers are receiving that training to recognize the signs of evidence and knowing how to preserve it in order for the detectives to come in and begin to process the scene," Salazar said.
"All in-custody deaths are going now to be handled by the homicide unit according to the sheriff and are going to be turned over to us regardless," said Bexar County District Attorney, Nico LaHood.
This new protocol has already taken effect, but if House Bill 2702, or the Sandra Bland Act, as it's called, makes it through the legislature, there will be another level of checks and balances.
The Texas Department of Public Safety would have to assign outside law enforcement agencies to investigate all inmate deaths going forward.