Nearly a year after Rhonda Newsome died in the Anderson County Jail, the public knows nothing about how she died, or whether negligence contributed to her death. With official investigations wrapped up, it's time to release any video surveillance or reports that could provide some answers.
On May 15, following an investigation by Texas Ranger Chris Baggett, a Grand Jury cleared Sheriff Greg Taylor and his staff of criminal wrongdoing. Last week, however, Anderson County District Attorney Allyson Mitchell still refused to release video or reports pertaining to Newsome's death.
Because the Rangers investigation did not result in a conviction or deferred adjudication, Mitchell said, the documents remain exempt from state public information law.
In citing the so-called dead suspect's exemption to the Texas Public Information Act, Mitchell is twisting the law's intent. The exemption, enacted in 1997, purports to protect the privacy of the accused, not conceal how suspects died in jail.
Moreover, even if state law doesn't require Mitchell to release the documents, it doesn't prevent her from doing so. In fact, open government and public accountability demand it.
Newsome, 50, died June 15 of last year, three months after she was jailed on assault charges stemming from a family fight. Police reported Newsome had been prescribed medications for high blood pressure, depression, and a thyroid condition. She had also received mental health treatment at Access in Palestine.
Since Newsome's death, Anderson County, buttressed by state agencies, has demonstrated a shameful lack of transparency. It has steadfastly withheld documents, including video surveillance and jail medical records.
Not surprisingly, the sheriff's office has led the way. Citing federal privacy laws, Taylor denied Newsome's son, Regan Kimbrough, his mother's medical records. Incredibly, his office also told the Herald-Press it had erased, or taped over, jailhouse video from the day Newsome died.
On Thursday, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards told the Herald-Press that editors could view a damaged copy of the video in Austin. On Monday, however, the commission rescinded the offer, following objections by the Anderson County Sheriff's Office.
An earlier investigation by the jail standards commission – without an on-site visit – found no violations of state standards in Newsome's death. A coroner's report concluded Newsome died of natural causes.
Commission findings conflict with statements several former jail prisoners made to the Herald-Press. They said Newsome, swollen on her left side and bleeding from the mouth, had asked for a doctor for three days, and pleaded for hospital treatment for at least 12 hours, before she died.
They also said jail staff failed to make hourly face-to-face checks on prisoners, as state jail standards require.
About the only thing the public knows with reasonable certainty is that, given the Grand Jury's findings, jail staff did not intentionally harm Newsome. That should comfort no one.
Concealing information just stokes suspicion and speculation. Anderson County should release any documents on Newsome's death, including surveillance video, and put the rumors to rest – assuming, that is, there really is nothing to hide.