Anderson County Sheriff Greg Taylor is either hiding something about the death of prisoner Rhonda Newsome, or fanning flames of suspicion that may be entirely unwarranted.
Either way, he's doing the public a disservice and should immediately authorize the release of the jail surveillance video from June 15, the day Newsome died.
The sheriff's office recklessly taped over the surveillance video. Then it asked the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to withhold the commission's copy from the Herald-Press.
On Monday, the state jail commission denied the Herald Press access to the video, after telling the newspaper the previous Friday a reporter and editor could view it at the commission's office in Austin, 175 miles away.
Equally disturbing, the commission said Thursday the surveillance video was damaged and not digitally transferable.
State law should prohibit any county sheriff's office from erasing, or taping over, surveillance video relevant to a prisoner's death. If the Anderson County Sheriff's Office hadn't done so, the public would have had a clean, undamaged copy of the video.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards cited state statutes permitting public officials to withhold information during an investigation. The commission, however, has already completed its review of Newsome's death.
Even so, under the state's anemic public information laws, the commission can now wait another 45 days, while the Texas Attorney General reviews the public information request.
Newsome, 50, died in jail June 15, three months after she was locked up on charges of aggravated assault. The charges stem from a family fight.
Several former prisoners told the Herald-Press that Newsome, swollen on her left side and bleeding from the mouth, requested hospital treatment for at least 12 hours before she died.
In light of those allegations, the Herald-Press did what any newspaper should do: Request the surveillance video and dig deeper.
Anderson County residents and taxpayers should know about any negligence in a prisoner's death, which can trigger costly litigation. They won't get that information from a closed and unaccountable sheriff's office.
Jail prisoner deaths plague the state, with nearly 100 a year reported in Texas. This state accounts for more than 10 percent of all U.S. jail deaths.
No one should assume, without evidence, negligence contributed to Newsome's death.
Still, fighting public information requests inevitably raises doubts.
Taylor has refused to speak to the Herald-Press – except to advance his interests – since Jeffery Gerritt became editor in May of last year.
That means Anderson County residents, who pay Taylor's annual salary of more than $68,000, often go without, among other things, information on crime in their neighborhoods.
Taping over surveillance video that would shed light on Rhonda Newsome's death may be just another in-your-face response by a public official who can't separate personal beefs from professional obligations.
Or, maybe, Taylor really is hiding something.