They Investigate Police Killings. Their Record Is Wanting.

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When the Texas Rangers learned that a woman had died in a jail south of Dallas, they put Adam Russell on the case. He found that there had been a struggle...
A sculpture of a Texas Ranger stands near the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame and Museum in Waco, Texas, Sept. 22, 2021. (Tamir Kalifa/The New York Times)

When the Texas Rangers learned that a woman had died in a jail south of Dallas, they put Adam Russell on the case.

He found that there had been a struggle between the woman, Kelli Leanne Page, 46, who was being held on drug charges, and two guards, who entered her cell because they said she would not stop banging a hairbrush against the door.

One jailer threw her to the floor, punched her in the face while they scuffled and piled atop her as blood streamed from her nose. The other, a trainee weighing 390 pounds, pinned her down until she stopped breathing.

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Six hours into his investigation, Russell indicated in his notes, he was not inclined to blame the guards for her death. And when an autopsy later determined that Page was the victim of a homicide — having died Oct. 8, 2017, of a form of asphyxiation — Russell appeared not to reconsider.

Instead, he obtained a second opinion from a retired chief medical examiner, who read the forensic report and said he believed that heart disease might have led to her death while she was being restrained. Russell later testified that the initial autopsy was a rush to judgment and that "something inside Kelli" had killed her. The guards were not charged.

For many years, Texas has made its state investigators, the fabled Rangers, available to review deaths that occur in the custody of local authorities. At least seven other states have embraced a similar approach, reasoning that outside inquiries are more likely to hold wrongdoers accountable.

But state agents do not necessarily lead to better investigations or greater accountability, according to a New York Times examination of the record in Texas. Drawing on dozens of interviews and more than 6,000 pages of investigative files, autopsy reports, police records and…
Michael LaForgia and Jennifer Valentino-DeVries
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