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Shanelle Jenkins learned her husband died by reading the newspaper.

“Officials with the Texas Rangers are investigating the death of Robert Geron Miller, 38, who was arrested Wednesday on eight misdemeanor warrants and accused of damaging the rear passenger door of a Fort Worth police car,” read the story on Aug. 3, 2019, in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

It explained that Miller was at the jail when he was pepper sprayed by deputies and then taken to John Peter Smith Hospital.

Few other details were known. As Jenkins held her phone and read the story over and over, she began to think it was a hoax.

“No one notified me that he was dead,” she said.

She didn’t even know he was in jail.

The Star-Telegram sought to examine the circumstances of the 40 people who are known to have died in the Tarrant County jail since 2016, when Sheriff Bill Waybourn was first elected. The majority of these deaths have been since 2020. Most of the deaths, like in other jails across the country, are from natural causes or illnesses such as heart disease. During the pandemic, at least nine people died from COVID-19.

Other in-custody deaths have raised questions among families of the inmates who are suspicious about the circumstances or simply want to know what happened. Did police, deputies or jailers violate protocols or use excessive force? Did staff neglect to monitor an inmate with medical problems, mental illness or a risk of suicide?

Forty people are known to have died in the Tarrant County jail, right, since 2016, when Sheriff Bill Waybourn was first elected.  

For those families, getting answers isn’t easy. Some haven’t been able to obtain basic information from the jail about how and why someone died in custody. Their requests for public records have been delayed or denied for months or years; under Texas law, authorities can withhold that information if they consider the case to be under investigation. The family of a man who was beaten by jailers told the Star-Telegram they were never notified that he was hospitalized.

Krishnaveni Gundu, co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project, said the public has a right to know what’s happening in their county jails, and that officials should be transparent when a death occurs. She called it a problem across the state.

“At the very least, we have the right to know about our loved ones,” Gundu said. “It comes down to a fundamental issue of trust. The less transparent an elected official is, the more trust deficit s/he/they create. Especially when the said official’s sole mandate is public safety and upholding law and order.”

In the case of Miller’s 2019 death, which was hours after his arrest, his wife and her lawyer only weeks ago received the first basic information about what happened from the Sheriff’s Office. The lawyer, David Henderson of Dallas, had filed multiple record requests for the information. The requests were appealed to the state attorney general. The Attorney General’s Office ultimately decided the sheriff must release the jailer’s reports, though the Sheriff’s Office has declined to provide body camera and other video footage that could show what happened.

Shanelle Jenkins’ husband, Robert Geron Miller, 38, died while in custody at the Tarrant County Jail in 2019. At the time of his death she was unaware he was even arrested and found out by reading an article in the newspaper.  

The Texas Rangers, which investigates all in-custody deaths, also denied Miller’s family’s requests for information. The Rangers did provide an outline of its Miller investigation to at least two news outlets, including the Star-Telegram.

“The agencies don’t want to share the information that they are required by law to share and have previously shared with other organizations,” said Henderson, who is representing Jenkins in an effort to bring a federal civil rights lawsuit against Waybourn for wrongful death. “This all started because Mrs. Jenkins just wants to know what happened to her husband, so that she can have some peace of mind.”

Pepper sprayed 3 times while face down

Miller’s wife and her attorneys have not been able to receive copies of the Texas Rangers’ investigation from DPS, but the agency sent a 10-page copy to the Star-Telegram and the New York Times. The attorneys eventually received copies from the New York Times after an editor released them on Twitter in December.

After almost three years of trying to get documents from the Sheriff’s Office, Henderson received five pages of narratives from five jailers who witnessed what happened or saw Miller afterward.

Ranger C.H. McDonald was the lead Rangers investigator in Miller’s death, as he was in at least 20 other Tarrant County jail deaths. McDonald and another detective interviewed four jailers who said that Miller was uncooperative during the booking process on July 31, 2019.

It began when police were sent to the 900 block of East 12th Street, behind the Central Station train stop, regarding a man who was possibly homeless. When the officers talked with Miller just after 10 a.m., they found that he had eight misdemeanor warrants for his arrest, according to a Fort Worth police report.

Miller told the officers that he wanted to pack up his campsite before leaving. They told him no. The officers wrote in their report that Miller “became agitated” and that he spat and kicked in the back of the patrol car. Miller said repeatedly, “Let me out I want my stuff” and “I hate the police” on the way to the jail, the officers noted.

A photograph of Robert Miller, provided by his wife, Shanelle Jenkins.  

Miller got to the jail around 2:15 p.m. after being held at the police department and going to court, according to his autopsy.

McDonald’s report says Miller tried to headbutt one of the jailers. However, that jailer wrote that Miller “turned as if he was going to hit me with his head.” A witness wrote in a third report that Miller “made an aggressive move.”

Another attorney at Henderson’s law firm pointed out that there’s a discrepancy between how McDonald’s report and the jailer’s notes described what happened. It could be resolved if the jail released video footage, the attorney said.

The reports match up for the rest of the narrative.

Miller was taken to the ground, McDonald wrote. The jailer added that Miller was face down and wouldn’t comply with demands to stop moving his arms.

While face down, Miller was pepper sprayed three times by two jailers, the TCSO reports say.

Miller was taken to a decontamination shower for 10 minutes. A four-sentence medical report says that Miller complained about knee pain, but no injury was seen. It said that Miller also complained of chest pain, but the jailer who wrote it noted that Miller was “able to speak without shortness of breath.”

Miller was not treated beyond the decontamination shower because he was “uncooperative,” according to the TCSO report.

After the booking process, Miller “refused to walk and had to be carried, face down, into his cell,” McDonald’s report says.

At 3 p.m., Miller was seen in his cell splashing toilet water on his face. Asked if he needed medical attention, Miller said no, the reports say.

Miller was found without a pulse 22 minutes later. He died the next day in John Peter Smith Hospital’s intensive care unit.

No one told his wife.

“Why did this happen to us?” Jenkins asked. “It’s not the best feeling in the world knowing you could get arrested for something so small and it costs your entire life. You lose everything and it affects families.”

The investigation was closed after the medical examiner ruled that Miller’s death was caused by a sickle cell crisis. Oxygen was not being delivered to his body. His toxicology report was negative except for medications given to him at the hospital. In a 2021 investigation by the New York Times, reporters found that in the last 25 years, the genetic trait was tied to 47 in-custody deaths.

One in 13 Black Americans carries the sick cell trait, but experts say it’s almost always benign. The Times reported that in about two-thirds of the 47 deaths, “the person who died had been forcefully restrained by the authorities, pepper-sprayed or shocked with stun guns.”

The Tarrant County Jail has faced questions over transparency before.

In June 2020, after three deaths and the quiet birth of a baby, at least two Tarrant County commissioners admonished the sheriff for not notifying the Commissioners Court about the events.

After that, Waybourn’s office issued news releases and Facebook posts when people died in jail. Those notifications have mostly stopped since 2021. When a reporter asked about a death that happened in February, a sheriff’s representative said the office wouldn’t release information because it happened two days earlier.

Two other families have told the Star-Telegram that they found the lack of transparency from the jail troublesome. Ashley Watson said she learned through a Star-Telegram story that her brother was badly beaten and hospitalized. Another family said they were notified of their loved one’s death but weren’t given any information about what happened to him.

“I went to the chaplain, the administration and left a voicemail for medical,” Watson said last year. “Both of them told us that it’s not up to them to inform the family of any issues in the jail and that’s frustrating. What if he was more seriously hurt?”

At the time, a jail official told the family that the office doesn’t release information on inmate conditions due to privacy issues. Family notifications would need to be made by a doctor.

The wife of Timothy Rasor, who died in the jail in 2021, told the Star-Telegram that even though she was notified about his death, she was unable to get information from the jail about what happened.

Timothy Rasor died after having a “medical emergency” inside the Tarrant County jail in 2021.  

After the newspaper published a story about Rasor’s death in March 2021 that highlighted his family’s questions, they were invited into the jail to watch video of his last moments, his stepdaughter said.

Gundu, of the Texas Jail Project, said there’s an easy solution for transparency complaints.

“Release all of the information to the family so they have some recourse,” she said, adding that jail leaders should also issue public statements when someone dies in custody. The Harris County Jail does that, she said.

“If the sheriff can’t keep people in his own custody alive and safe, how can we expect him to keep folks out in the community safe?” Gundu said. “And when his office actively suppresses information about a death in their own custody, it’s one of the most corrosive ways of creating trust deficit with the very community that put him in power.”

With limited or no information about the circumstances of a jail death, a family may find they have few options to pursue legal challenges.

Jenkins has sought a federal civil rights lawsuit over Miller’s death.

Based on what little information they had, Jenkins and Henderson, her lawyer, moved forward with a lawsuit before they received a copy of the Ranger’s report from the New York Times. Wrongful death lawsuits must be filed within two years of a death. Without information to support their claims, the county moved to have the lawsuit dismissed.

In their rebuttal, Henderson asked for Judge Reed O’Connor to intervene and hold the state and sheriff to the public records law. Henderson outlined what the Ranger’s report said, using it to bolster their claims of a wrongful death.

O’Connor ruled it was too late. The judge also denied a motion to amend Jenkins’ original complaint, which would have allowed her to add new information into her lawsuit.

In the end, O’Connor accepted a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Jenkins has appealed.

Other deaths

Of the at least 40 deaths in Tarrant County Jail since 2016, about 76% occurred since the beginning of 2020.

Seventeen people died in 2020, 12 died in 2021 and two have died this year. In comparison, eight people died in the Dallas County jail in 2020 and nine in 2021. The Dallas jail has a higher average population (5,390) than Tarrant’s (3,792).

The Star-Telegram tried to examine all the deaths in the jail since 2016, which required going through several channels to compile the information. The newspaper requested all in-custody death investigations from the Texas Rangers and received copies of 27 investigations. Other information came from the Tarrant County Medical Examiner and the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Of the 40 deaths, COVID-19 is to blame for nine. Three were ruled as suicides. One man was killed by his cellmate in 2018.

Seventeen deaths were ruled to be natural causes. They stemmed from health issues the inmates had prior to incarceration, such as high blood pressure, cancer, HIV or kidney failure. One person died of a drug overdose. Two people died after what jailers said were falls. Two people died because they didn’t have enough fluid in their bodies.

Autopsies are still pending in the remaining cases.

At the Tarrant County Jail, three other people who died were, like Miller, accused of misdemeanor crimes. Most people were pretrial inmates or were jailed for violating their probation or parole. One woman was waiting to be transferred to a mental health facility when she died.

Struggling with closure

Jenkins said her relationship with Miller included some major bumps in the road, but they always moved forward with love.

The couple met in Chicago in 2005. Miller lived in Fort Worth and traveled to the Windy City to meet with Jenkins over the course of several years. Finally, her love for Miller was enough to move her to Texas, where they married and lived with Miller’s father.

Miller struggled with his mental health and found himself in and out of custody on a string of misdemeanor charges. There were often times, more recently, that he slept away from their home. The last time he was jailed was in 2016. Between his arrests, he tried to keep himself busy with day labor jobs.

Shanelle Jenkins’ husband, Robert Geron Miller, 38, died while in custody at the Tarrant County Jail in 2019.  

“He said it kept him occupied and it kept things different,” Jenkins said.

Despite his struggles, Jenkins said, her husband kept an upbeat attitude. Jenkins visibly held back her emotions while talking about her husband’s death. She smiled when she was asked what Miller was like.

“He’s just like, a wonderful person to be around,” she said. “He made me laugh all the time. And we tried to do the best we could together as a couple, no matter the circumstances.”


This content was originally published here.

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