Prison inmate says ‘I can’t breathe’ 29 times as officers restrain him before he dies
A black man who called out “I can’t breathe” before dying at the Forsyth County Detention Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina was killed as a result of brain injury that was caused by positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint.
Five officers and a nurse were last month charged with involuntary manslaughter in the December 2019 death of John Neville, the 56-year-old Black man, at Forsyth County Detention Center.
Neville was being held at the facility on a pending assault charge when he eventually suffered a medical emergency, falling from the top bunk of his bed onto a concrete floor. That prompted correction officers and a nurse to check up on him.
The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday released two videos of the incident showing the events leading to the death of Neville in the County’s jail. The office was responding to a judge’s order.
The footage of the incident which occurred on December 2 shows five detention officers restraining Neville in a cell as he yells “I can’t breathe” before losing consciousness. He died two days later.
In the first video, the body-worn cam of one of the officers Antionio Woodley records 19 minutes and 55 seconds of his colleagues and the jail nurse, Michelle Heughins responding to Neville having a medical emergency in his cell.
“Alright John, we’re going to take your blood pressure,” one of the five officers responding to the emergency could be heard telling Neville in the footage.
Having identified Neville’s apparent medical problem as a stroke, Heughins wakes him up by rubbing her knuckles against his chest.
The first video ends with officers handcuffing Neville behind his back and moved him to another cell for observation. The second video which was taken by a hand-held camera starts up just after the first video ends and lasts 25 minutes and 40 seconds, The Carolina Public Press reported.
In the video, a jail staff could be seen transporting Neville to the jail’s multipurpose room, then to a jail cell, where officers removed him from a restraint chair and placed him face down on a mat on the cell floor.
Appeared confused Neville resisted the officers, who held him in a prone position. As he struggled to sit up, the officers continue to hold him down on his back, shouting, “Let me up!” several times.
Restrained on the floor on his stomach, Neville shouts “I can’t breathe,” over and over in the video. Minutes later he became unresponsive.
According to the Carolina Public Press, Neville’s death was shielded from the public in part due to his family’s request, until the News & Observer published an investigation on June 26.
The News & Observer requested video footage documenting Neville’s fatal injuries at the jail be released. On July 23, 10 other newsrooms, including Carolina Public Press, joined the petition for release.
Superior Court Judge Greg Horne heard the case on July 29 and two days later issued an order to release the video with partial redactions for Neville’s privacy.
The release was in the public interest, which was “only furthered by the fact that the death was not publicly reported for at least six months after it occurred,” Horne wrote in his order, the outlet reported.
The Forsyth County sheriff Bobby Kimbrough apologized in the wake of the newly released videos.
“I apologize again for what happened on that day,” Sheriff Kimbrough said at a news conference Tuesday. “We’re sorry for the mistakes made that day. I take responsibility for that as the sheriff.”
Neville’s family filed a civil lawsuit against the county of Forsyth and Wellpath “to see the family is justly compensated.”
“We certainly appreciate the sheriff’s honesty, his openness and his willingness to put a little salve, a little balm on this wound for the family and to acknowledge that there were mistakes — and as the coroner said in his report, this was a man who didn’t have to die,” said attorney Michael Grace, who is representing the Neville family.
“The sheriff has acknowledged mistakes were made and that means a lot to the family. It won’t bring John Neville back … but it goes away toward causing this terrible scar to heal over again,” Grace added.