LUBBOCK, Texas — When Jordan Woolf died in a Lubbock County jail in December 2019, his relatives asked for answers.
The state’s Custodial Death Report listed the death as a suicide — Woolf was found hanging from a bedsheet in his cell — and that Woolf had exhibited mental health issues while in custody. His family is wondering how and why his death was allowed to occur.
Yet, the search for evidence relating to the night of his death has required an attorney, dozens of public information requests, hearings in state district court, and almost two years of inquiries.
“It’s a very frustrating process for the family, as you might imagine, and a very frustrating process for us to find out what happened in a public jail, from our public officials of all people,” said Dean Malone, a Dallas attorney retained by Woolf’s relatives to investigate his death.
According the the Lubbock County District Attorney’s Office, Malone has made over two dozen requests for records under the Texas Public Information Act over the course of a year and a half. They explain that their office has released every record they are legally able to release.
“To the best of our knowledge, we have released everything to Malone in conjunction with his numerous requests under the guidance of the Attorney General,” Assistant Criminal District Attorney for Lubbock County Neal Burt said. “We released to them everything that the government code allows us to, taking into account that there are a variety of exceptions to disclosure.”
Those exceptions are the crux of Malone’s complaints. The county did not release records while the Sheriff’s investigation into Woolf’s death was ongoing, as is standard procedure under exceptions to public records request under Texas law. After their office completed its investigation, they found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, allowing another legal reason for the county to disclose certain information.
“Its a catch 22. You don’t get records while they are investigating, and you don’t get records once we’ve completed our investigation if nobody was convicted as a result,” Malone said. “It doesn’t seem quite fair that our law enforcement folks, our Sheriff’s department and our county get to decide on their own to release records when, perhaps, they think those records benefit their view of what happened. But on the other hand, when the family wants to find out, they get to go hire a lawyer… not quite a fair process.”
The District Attorney’s office explains there are numerous security and privacy issues in releasing information on Woolf’s death to the public.
“My main concern are the videos included as part of his request,” Assistant Criminal District Attorney for Lubbock County Jennifer Irlbeck said. “Someone could use those videos and learn where where the security cameras are located, things of that nature. If the general public has access to this, they now know where all of our security measures in the jail are. That’s not a good thing. We need to protect our staff, we need to also protect the other inmates out there as well. That’s our job, and to best do that we have elected to protect that information.”
The county also explains many of the records the Woolf family is requesting are not under their jurisdiction -certain medical records, for example, would have to originate from an outside entity.
“They have everything that we have except for those things that may be the property of another agency or another entity that we have no control over the release of them,” Burt said.
To compel the discovery of certain evidence, Malone successfully filed a petition to depose a representative of the Sheriff’s office regarding Woolf’s death – a move the county explains is often made by parties planning to file a lawsuit.
Their petition indicated they were looking at filing a civil rights complaint against the county surrounding the death of Mr. Woolf,” Burt said.
“I can understand they are concerned about litigation and don’t want to release videos and evidence… but on the other hand, should they be able to release bodycam, dashcam, other evidence of an occurrence… whenever they think it makes law enforcement look good? Is that the kind of government we want? I dont think so,” Malone said.
The county maintains they are following the letter of the law and have made no effort to evade a potential lawsuit.
“We’re taking the normal course of action we would take with virtually any requestor… there’s been no efforts in this case to stymie Dean Malone and his efforts to get information,” Burt said. “We understand that a lot of the people who come to us for information are grieving… and we really try to weigh our commitment and our ethical obligation to Lubbock County… with the members of the general public that are coming to us and seeking information. This one is unique because of the nature of the death and the fact that it occurred at the Lubbock County Detention Center.”
For Malone, however, the issue is not that the county is evading the law. The problem, rather, lies within the law itself. Malone petitioned lawmakers ahead of the previous legislative session to carve out exceptions for family members of deceased inmates within the Texas Public Information Act.
“We have no complaint with procedurally, legally… how the D.A’s office and the Sheriff’s office chose to handle this matter,” Malone said. “We complain about it from a human perspective, from a caring perspective, about a family who had a man commit suicide… and just showing some humanity when in other instances the Sheriff’s Department would release a bodycam… It’s just not quite fair to hold to the letter of the law when you don’t want the family to find out what happened and yet to release the records freely, by discretion, when you like the way an incident occurred from the law enforcement’s or the jail’s perspective.”