The Texas Attorney General's Office has rejected an open-records request by the Herald-Press for surveillance video showing the death of Anderson County Jail inmate Rhonda Newsome. Newsome, 50, died in a holding cell on June 15 of last year, three months after she was jailed on assault charges stemming from a family fight.
In refusing to make the video public, the AG's Office cited, among other things, the possibility of terrorism raised by the Anderson County Sheriff's Office.
“Information...that relates to the specifications, operating procedures, or location of a security system used to protect public or private property from an act of terrorism or related criminal activity is confidential,” reads Government Code 418.182, the exemption used by the Anderson County Sheriff's Office.
Herald-Press Editor Jeffery Gerritt said Monday the newspaper requested video from the day Newsome died to help determine negligence in Newsome's death, as several former prisoners had alleged in interviews with the newspaper.
A Texas Rangers investigation, completed May 30, showed the sheriff's office was negligent, Gerritt said.
A report on the investigation states jail staff tried to use a malfunctioning defibrillator on Newsome. It also showed medical staff failed to get Newsome to the hospital, despite blood test results showing imminent danger of death.
“Sheriff Taylor's persistent efforts to block information about Newsome's death raises troubling questions about how she died and medical care in the county jail in general,” Gerritt said. “Video surveillance might have answered some of those questions for the public, which pays for the county jail, its operations and employees.
“It's also disturbing the sheriff's office told us last year that surveillance video from the day Newsome died had been taped over – in other words, erased.”
Officials at the AG's office said they had to to consider “terrorism or related criminal activity” when rendering its decision. The sheriff's office had raised the issue and an earlier AG ruling upheld another agency's effort to withhold video for the same reason.
A letter received Friday by the Herald-Press from Assistant Attorney General Merideth Corrman states: “The sheriffs office...states the video recordings at issue reveal the locations of the security cameras, which are used to protect the jail from acts of terrorism or related criminal activities.”
The Herald-Press has filed more than a dozen open-records request for documents, including video surveillance, related to Newsome's death. Until May, all requests were refused, citing open investigations.
Sheriff's offices throughout the state, however, routinely provide video surveillance as public record.
Waller County Jail released video of Sandra Bland's July 13, 2015, death, just days later. By July 21, the footage had been uploaded to YouTube for the world to see.
Bland, 28, was found hanged in a jail cell in Waller County, Texas, three days after a routine traffic stop. Her family was awarded nearly $2 million in a wrongful death lawsuit.
In 2017, legislators passed – and Gov. Greg Abbott signed – the Sandra Bland Act, which included numerous mental health reforms.