Two weeks after 28-year-old Sandra Bland was found hanging in her Waller County, Texas cell—where she had been held for three days since being arrested for changing lanes without using a signal—the controversy over her cause of death is intensifying.
Most recently, following a coroner ruling her death a suicide, some circles in social media have alleged that Bland was already dead in her mugshot.
Citing everything from the low-resolution photo’s background matching the color of a cell’s floor to the positioning of Bland’s shoulders to the way her hair is set, diagrams of the conspiracy started to pick up mainstream coverage in outlets like Buzzfeed, Complex, and The Independent.
But according to leading forensic experts, there is no evidence to indicate Bland is dead in her mugshot—with one even calling the claim “ridiculous.”
“Now, theoretically, you can set up a photo of a dead person to look alive,” said Dr. Michael Baden, who recently conducted a private autopsy at the request of the family of Michael Brown, the 18-year-old black man shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri.
“But to say that she’s dead from the photo is ridiculous because you can say that about almost any head photo. You have to use evidence.”
“There’s nothing in the photo to indicate she’s dead,” says Dr. Adel Shaker, a board-certified anatomic and forensic pathologist with almost three decades of experience. “Period.”
John Hiserodt, a doctor with over 20 years of experience as a forensic pathologist who says he has performed over 4,000 autopsies, says it would be impossible to determine if she’s dead based on the low-resolution picture alone.
“There’s no way I could tell from that mugshot,” he says. “From just looking at a photo, there are no signs. Unless it is of marked, advanced decomposition—then an elementary student could tell. Not only a forensic pathologist—a layman could tell.”
Another forensic pathology professor, who asked to remain anonymous, concurred. “To think that you can discern whether she is alive or dead based on this image is ridiculous and alarmist,” he says.
The legality of Bland’s arrest itself has been called into question in the last week. The Waller County’s Sheriff’s office has faced controversy over contradictions in Bland’s booking documents, dashcam footage that reveals the arresting officer threatening Bland with a stun gun while saying “I will light you up,” and alleging she consumed a large amount of THC while in custody.
But the media shouldn’t be jumping on a conspiracy bandwagon, according to Baden, who was also the New York State Police’s chief forensic pathologist.
“The mugshot is taken when she comes in, so the theory is she’s dead when she comes out of the police car, after a police altercation, and they don’t announce her death for three days? I don’t understand it,” says Baden.
Baden’s laundry list of forensic pathology credentials include a stint as New York City’s chief medical examiner, chairing a federal committee investigating the assassination of John F. Kennedy, authoring more than 80 articles and books, and hosting HBO’s Autopsy.
“There’s nothing to indicate she’s dead in that photo, and for people to make the assumption that there’s a big conspiracy,” he says, “what’s the purpose of it? It doesn’t make sense. There are too many witnesses.”
Despite the controversies that still plague the circumstances of Bland’s tragic death, Baden says the mugshot needs to be treated as nothing more than a low-resolution booking photo.
“I would say that—having seen hundred of mugshots—this is an ordinary mugshot of a person who’s not happy about their situation,” says Baden.