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Wife Loses Suit Over Homeless Texan’s Jail Death Ruled ‘Natural,’ Newspaper Alleges Cover-up

by Jo Ellen Nott

On October 14, 2022, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported the results of an independent investigation it conducted into the jail death of a homeless man, sharply contradicting reports from both Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn and the Texas Rangers.

On July 31, 2019, Fort Worth police approached Robert Geron Miller, 38, at his homeless camp near downtown about panhandling complaints lodged against him. With outstanding misdemeanor arrest warrants stemming from years of homelessness — for public drunkenness and panhandling, plus about $4,000 in unpaid related court fines — Miller was arrested and taken to the Tarrant County Jail (TCJ). Within 24 hours he was dead.

Miller lived his life in the shadow of mental illness stemming from childhood abuse in Chicago. There he married Shanelle Jenkins, who also struggled with homelessness and instability. In the early 2000s they moved to Texas for a better life. Miller worked mostly as a day laborer, taking medication for depression and an antipsychotic to manage his aggravation, according to court records. But after finding public housing and having a child with Jenkins, Miller grew more troubled. Refusing court-ordered professional care, as well as help and advice from his father and wife, Miller took to the streets. 

From 2016 to 2019 he had no arrests, until that fatal morning Fort Worth cops approached him. They began by not allowing Miller to clean up his homeless camp before leaving, angering him to the point he kicked the patrol vehicle. In turn, that angered police enough to have the damage to the vehicle assessed at $751, just one dollar over the amount needed to hold Miller on a more severe charge and book him into jail.

During intake at TCJ, guards noted Miller’s mental health problems and PTSD, as well as a comment that he’d like to “kill all y’all cops.” In a room out of sight of surveillance cameras, three guards were allegedly provoked by the 5-foot-6-inch-tall man, who weighed just 160 pounds. They pepper-sprayed him at least three times and, after rinsing him off in a cold shower, carried him to a cell. There he was found unresponsive 21 minutes later and taken to a hospital for a suspected overdose.

Yet when doctors ran tests, they found no drugs in Miller’s system. What they found instead were very low oxygen levels, inflamed lungs filled with fluid, and no brain activity. Early the next morning, less than a day after his arrest, Miller’s neck swelled, and blood leaked from his ears and nose. He was pronounced dead at 5:45 a.m. 

The medical examiner ruled on August 1, 2019, that the death resulted from a sickle cell crisis. The Texas Rangers also ruled the death natural after an investigation — though as PLN has reported, the quality of death-in-custody investigations by the Rangers has frequently been called into doubt. [See: PLN, Apr. 2022, p.22.]

The Star-Telegram conducted its own investigation, interviewing sickle cell experts and querying Miller’s immediate family about his health history. The evidence uncovered points strongly against sickle cell disease, which the newspaper says Miller “almost certainly did not have.” On top of that were troubling inconsistencies between guards’ statements which the Rangers did not attempt to resolve. Nor did Rangers review jail surveillance video, letting a sheriff’s deputy do it for them. The jail refuses to release the video now, a decision state Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) supports.

On July 31, 2021, one day before the statute of limitations expired, Shanelle Jenkins filed suit in federal court for the Northern District of Texas under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, accusing the county and Sheriff Waybourn of causing Miller’s wrongful death with violations of his civil rights under the Fourth and Eighth Amendments, including excessive force and inadequate staff training, both resulting from an official policy or custom. Also named as a defendant was the Texas Rangers division of the state Department of Public Safety (DPS), which Jenkins sued under the state’s Public Information Act.

The Court dismissed all claims on February 11, 2022. Though those against DPS and the county defendants in their official capacities were dismissed without prejudice, the expiration of the statute of limitations bars refiling them. So, with the aid of her attorneys — David W. Henderson and Jay D. Ellwanger of Ellwanger Law LLLP in Dallas — Plaintiff moved the Court for Relief from Judgment. But that motion was denied on July 8, 2022. See: Jenkins v. Tarrant Cty. Sheriff’s Office, 2022 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 136570 (N.D. Tex.).

Jenkins has filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, and PLN will report developments there as they become available. See: Jenkins v. Tarrant Cty Shrf’s Ofc, USCA (5th Cir.), Case No. 22-10718.

Robert Miller was one of at least 46 detainees to die at TCJ since 2019. 

Additional source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram

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Related legal cases

Jenkins v. Tarrant Cty. Sheriff’s Office

Jenkins v. Tarrant Cty Shrf’s Ofc