Broadway Baptist Church is leading a coalition of congregations in Fort Worth, Texas, advocating for justice at the Tarrant County Jail, where 39 inmates have died while in custody since 2019.
Among those was Robert Miller, who died after being pepper sprayed. A county medical examiner ruled he died from natural causes from a sickle cell crisis, but an investigation by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram found Miller did not have the disease. County officials said they would have an outside medical examiner review the autopsy report.
The story took a new turn Monday afternoon when members of Fort Worth’s interfaith Circle of Clergy met with Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley to deliver a letter signed by 23 of their members asking the county to request an investigation of Miller’s death by the U.S. Department of Justice. The letter was delivered by Ryon Price, pastor of Broadway, members of the Circle, and Katherine Godby, chair of Broadway’s Justice Committee.
The letter noted unanswered questions about Miller’s death raised in the Star-Telegram article that suggest “human rights may have been violated and that criminal negligence could be culpable in both his death and the subsequent review of his death.”
“As faith leaders, we believe in the sacred worth of the lives of all persons.”
The letter ends with this statement: “The good faith of the public is a sacred trust which must be kept by all public servants. Likewise, as faith leaders, we believe in the sacred worth of the lives of all persons. We urge the court that in order to best keep the community’s trust, it affirms the life of Mr. Miller by doing whatever you can to shine light on the troubling circumstances of his death.”
Price said Whitley told the group the county will undertake their own review, including sending blood samples from Miller to the Mayo Clinic to verify whether or not he had the sickle cell trait, and sending the autopsy report and other relevant information to a medical examiner in Chicago. Price noted Whitley’s term on the Commissioners Court will end Dec. 31.
“We’re really hopeful that he will do his due diligence in gathering as much information as possible about the circumstances of this death and will join us in the call for an independent outside investigation and review,” Price. said “We would really like for this make-up of the court to take some real initiative here and conscientiously feel the urgency of the moment. Too many troubling questions have been raised by this (Star-Telegram) article for the can to be kicked down the road.”
Formation of Justice Committee
None of this was anticipated when Broadway formed its Justice Committee in February 2021. Members were moving slowly and deliberately, studying issues and receiving training in community organizing from Lydia Bean, a committee member and well-known North Texas social scientist, author, researcher and founder of Faith in Texas, a multiracial nonprofit that brings faith communities together to work for justice and fairness.
“She emphasized everything we do for advocacy has to come from relationship with the people who are closest to the pain,” Godby said.
The committee’s first major project was to advocate with the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County for funds from the American Rescue Plan Act to be used for permanent supportive housing for the homeless. In April 2022, the city approved $5 million from ARPA to help build 165 housing units.
In February, the Texas Jail Project contacted Price regarding the committee advocating for voting rights in the Tarrant County Jail. They were all set to go on that, but by the time they met with county officials in early May, that voting project had been set aside because of the human rights crisis happening at the jail with 39 deaths since 2019.
A new and urgent focus
On Aug. 2, three Broadway members, including Godby, spoke to the Commissioners Court about the high number of deaths and asked for an outside investigation. After the meeting, Judge Whitley suggested they meet with Sheriff Bill Waybourn. Two days later, the Star-Telegram published a news release from the sheriff’s department in which he rebutted much of what the Broadway members had said and stated that nobody who speaks at the commissioner’s court is under oath.
“At Broadway, we teach that it’s important to tell the truth at all times whether we’re under oath or not.”
“There was at least in that an implication that some of our Justice Committee members were not telling the truth because they weren’t mandated to do so under oath,” Price said. “My response to that was to say that at Broadway, we teach that it’s important to tell the truth at all times whether we’re under oath or not. I’ve said that publicly, and that I think it’s very important we feel like being an honest truth teller — truth seeker — is an important part of the role of a Christian church historically and is one that we feel like it’s very important to maintain.”
On Aug. 22, Price and committee members did meet with Sheriff Waybourn, Judge Whitley, several county staff members and a representative from the JPS Health Network, which provides medical staff for the jail system. According to Price and a committee timeline, the meeting was cordial and respectful as they pressed for specific improvements in jail conditions and intake practices. At Price’s request, the sheriff apologized for implying that committee members had lied to the Commissioners Court, and the county officials talked about the difficulties of running a jail. According to the committee timeline, one of their suggestions — including a medical release form in the information provided at inmate intake — was implemented within 48 hours, but all others have been ignored.
With the news coverage these and related meetings generated, several people called the church wanting to share their experiences at the jail. Meanwhile, another inmate died in late September, and on Oct. 14, the Star-Telegram published the in-depth investigative story about the death of Miller in 2019.
“This is a very troubling case, and it raises some deeply disturbing questions which we feel like really need to be answered for the sake of not only the Tarrant County jail but also the sheriff’s office, the medical examiner’s office, the commissioners court, the county itself,” Price said.
To that end, Price spoke again before the Commissioners Court on All Saints Day, asking specific questions about Miller’s death that were raised in the Star-Telegram report.
“These are gravely important questions.”
“These are gravely important questions. Given all that has happened in this city and in our jail since 2019, I cannot see how the sheriff’s office, the office of the medical examiner, and the county itself can go forward in good faith and conscience without having these questions answered,” he told the commissioners. “I call upon you, commissioners, to request a full investigatory review of Mr. Miller’s death by the Department of Justice; and I ask that you commit to doing so regardless of who wins next week’s county elections.”
More to be done
While a decision is pending on whether the Department of Justice will be asked to investigate, Broadway’s Justice Committee will continue to work on that and other issues.
Godby said the committee’s work on the jail issue has become almost a full-time job for her and several others, but she is glad to be doing it. As a retired minister ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination, this is work she has wanted to do.
“I wanted to focus on justice. It’s not that I’ve experienced much injustice. Frankly, I’m terribly privileged, but my faith really does tell me that God is depending on us to help build the kingdom, build the reign of God. There’s that quote from Theresa of Avalon that we are Christ’s hands and feet in the world — that Christ has no hands but ours — so I’ve always thought that was an imperative. It’s incredibly meaningful for me to do this work.”
Price said he too has found the work taking a lot of his time, “but it’s time well spent. And you know, frankly, we build community within ourselves as we work together. That’s part of the building of the church as well.”
He said Broadway affirmed the establishment of the Justice Committee in 2020 and the congregation has continued to be supportive as the jail issue has gotten so much public notice.
“We did a survey of our church just recently, and there’s a large degree of support for this kind of business,” he said.
Godby said while the jail effort is front and center right now, there is more for the Justice Committee to do. “We don’t want to be just a one-issue committee,” she said. To that end, they also will be looking at racial justice and LGBTQ issues.
“I think it is high time and I wish every church would do this,” she said. “I think the mainline church has an important role to play in justice in this country, especially these days. Our voice for justice can be a strong one.”
“I think we’ve learned there’s real power in our voice,” he said. “The church does have a degree of power of convening and raising to light questions that need to be asked and answered. That’s an important thing we’re finding out is a positive sense of power for the building up of the common good.”
Jeff Hampton is a freelance writer based in Dallas.
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