Investigations

Travis County sheriff sues Texas AG to keep inmate death records secret

AUSTIN (KXAN) — This week, the Travis County Sheriff’s Office has filed two lawsuits against the Texas Attorney General to keep certain records regarding jail inmate deaths secret. One of those cases has been the focus of a KXAN investigation into transparency issues within the sheriff’s office.

In 2017, Herman Titus, 21, suffered a seizure in his cell at the Travis County Correctional Complex and died shortly after. Titus had been involved in a major car wreck just weeks earlier, landing him in jail for intoxication assault since his passenger was injured.

Titus’ autopsy stated he had an enlarged heart and suffered from heart disease, but his mother tells KXAN he had no history of heart issues.

“I just want to know what really killed him, because it's kind of hard to accept that my son just died from natural causes,” Demeisha Burns said.

Burns and her attorney were denied information in the case, as the county cited an obscure loophole to the Texas Public Information Act giving police discretion to withhold information if a suspect has not gone through the court process — even if that person dies in custody. KXAN’s research into the issue is currently being utilized as a state lawmaker works to push a bill through the legislature to close that loophole and require law enforcement agencies to hand over information in such cases.

During its investigation, KXAN obtained some of the information Travis County withheld from Titus’ family through other agencies that had looked into the death, including videos and audio detailing the inmate’s complaints of severe pain in the days leading up to his death and a fight with another inmate when Titus was possibly hit in the head. KXAN also obtained footage showing staff response after Titus collapsed in his cell before he died. Because of KXAN’s questions, officials have now launched a clinical investigation into that response.

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The sheriff’s office — which manages the jail — maintains no wrongdoing. With the evidence KXAN uncovered, Burns is currently exploring legal options.

"All I want right now is the truth, and I don't care about no money," Burns told KXAN. "If you're not wrong, and you did everything by the book, then you have nothing to worry about, so why withhold the information?"

New lawsuits

During its investigation, KXAN was also denied records in Titus’ case, as Travis County sought attorney general rulings to justify its decisions to withhold certain information from the public. Most often, the attorney general erred on the side of the county using that legal loophole.

But in a separate request by KXAN, the county chose to withhold photographs of nine staff members — mostly jailers and nurses. KXAN learned the identities of the personnel in contact with Titus in his final hours through open records obtained through other agencies.

The county used a different statute, claiming the release of such photographs would threaten the safety of those staff members and the security of the jail. The attorney general’s office disagreed with that argument and ordered the county to release the photographs to KXAN. 

This week, the sheriff’s office filed a lawsuit against the attorney general to continue withholding those photographs from KXAN. It marked the second time in a matter of months the sheriff’s office made such a move, as it sued the state to continue withholding information related to the 2016 in-custody death of inmate Justin Dominguez, 24. Both suits are pending.

Also this week, the sheriff’s office sued the state to deny a disability rights group access to information regarding the jail death of inmate Naquan Carter, 23, in July. The attorney general had ruled that some of the information sought by the group should be released, so the sheriff’s office sued to continue withholding it — largely claiming officer safety and jail security threats.

Carter’s death followed a string of at least three other deaths early last year. The sheriff’s office said it does not comment on pending litigation. 


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