5 Guards and a nurse face charges in death of inmate who pleaded, ‘I can’t breathe’

By Michael Levenson

Five former detention officers and a nurse at a North Carolina jail have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a Black man who repeatedly exclaimed, “I can’t breathe,” as the officers tried unsuccessfully to remove his handcuffs, a county prosecutor said Wednesday.

The man, John Neville, 56, had been booked into the Forsyth County jail in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on Dec. 1, on a charge of assaulting a woman, according to authorities. About 24 hours later, Neville had an unknown medical condition that caused him to fall from the top bunk of his cell and hit the concrete floor, according to the Forsyth County district attorney, Jim O’Neill.

Detention officers and an on-call nurse found Neville disoriented and confused and took him to an observation cell, O’Neill said at a news conference Wednesday.

O’Neill did not detail what happened next, or say specifically what role prosecutors believe the officers and the nurse had in Neville’s death. But he said that over the next 45 minutes, Neville “would sustain injuries that would eventually cause him to lose his life.”

The episode was captured on video, and O’Neill said that an autopsy report found that Neville repeatedly said, “I can’t breathe,” as officers tried to remove his handcuffs. The autopsy found that Neville died of a brain injury because of cardiopulmonary arrest that was caused by “positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint.” The report also cited other “significant conditions” that Neville had, O’Neill said, including “acute altered mental status” and asthma. Neville died on Dec. 4, 2019, at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

The charges were the latest to be brought in the death of a Black man at the hands of law enforcement officers since the killing of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police touched off global protests against police brutality and systemic racism. Neville’s plea — “I can’t breathe” — was the same one uttered by Floyd and by Eric Garner, another Black man, who died in 2014 after a New York City police officer held him in a chokehold on a sidewalk.

Over the past decade, The New York Times found, at least 70 people in the country have died in police custody after saying the same three words: “I can’t breathe.”

At the news conference Wednesday, O’Neill addressed Neville’s son, Sean Neville, and daughter, Brienne Thornton Neville.

“We have all been witnesses to the unrest that has gripped our world over the last several weeks,” O’Neill said. “As it relates specifically to your father, Mr. Neville, his death was avoidable and that is a tragic, singular fact.”

O’Neill said he would not release video of the episode “unless and until we reach a proper court of law.” He said that it was important for a jury or judge not to have “preconceived opinions” about the guilt or innocence of those charged.

The five former officers charged were Lavette Williams, 47; Edward Roussel, 50; Christopher Stamper, 42; Antonio Woodley, 26; and Sarah Poole, 36. The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office said it had fired all of them Tuesday, with the exception of Stamper, who was fired Wednesday. The nurse who was charged, Michelle Heughins, was employed by a private contractor, according to the sheriff’s office. Williams and Woodley are Black, the sheriff’s office said. The rest of the officers are white.

“Good men and women made bad decisions that day and, as a result, a good man died,” the Forsyth County sheriff, Bobby F. Kimbrough Jr., whose office runs the county jail, said at the news conference.

Kimbrough said that the five former officers had asked him to relay a message to Neville’s children, as he walked them into a magistrate’s office to be charged Wednesday.

“They said, ‘Sheriff, tell them that we meant their father no harm — we were trying to assist and help,’ ” Kimbrough said. “We are sorry that the mistakes were made that day. I take responsibility for that, as the sheriff.”

It was not immediately clear if all of those charged had lawyers. David Freedman, a lawyer for Roussel, said the officers were released on $15,000 unsecured bonds. Freedman said his client had been in law enforcement for 30 years, had a clean record and was cooperating with the authorities.

“This was not an arrest,” Freedman said. “This was a medical emergency and he was following standard operating procedure and they had a nurse supervising the procedure.”

Heughins’ employer, Wellpath, said it was saddened by Neville’s death.

“We are confident that a review of the circumstances surrounding Mr. Neville’s death will show that Nurse Heughins acted professionally and reasonably in trying to save his life,” the company said in a statement. “Nurse Heughins engaged in no misconduct, but rather provided compassionate quality medical care.”

Neville had worked in construction, had been married twice and lived in Greensboro, North Carolina, according to a lawyer for his family, Michael A. Grace.

After Neville died, the sheriff’s office asked the state authorities to investigate but did not publicly acknowledge the death until last month, nearly seven months after it occurred, according to The Winston-Salem Journal. Kimbrough had said that Neville’s family had asked him to keep the death private.

Grace said the family appreciated the way the sheriff’s office and the district attorney’s office had handled the case.

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