A North Carolina inmate who died in December repeatedly called out for help and said “I can’t breathe” more than 25 times as deputies restrained him, newly released body camera videos show.
John Neville died at a hospital on Dec. 4, 2019 days after Forsyth County Detention Center officers placed him in handcuffs and restrained him on the ground following an apparent medical episode.
A medical examiner determined that the cause of death was complications of a brain injury that was caused by “positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint.” The autopsy report states that Neville had asthma and that “no direct pressure was placed on his neck or back” and a chokehold was not used.
The body camera videos, which were released Wednesday and obtained by NBC affiliate WRAL in Raleigh, show Neville lying on the ground on his back surrounded by five jail officers and a nurse. The nurse is seen shaking Neville, who appears to be unconscious.
“Hey, John. Hey there. Hey. How ya doing? It’s Ok. You’re Ok,” the nurse says as Neville wakes up. “It looks like you had a seizure.”
Neville starts moving under the officers’ restraint and a deputy tells him to “stay down.” Neville asks to be let up.
“Pull me up, pull me up. Please. Help me,” Neville says in the video. A deputy tells him to “settle down.”
At one point, Neville appears to be on his stomach as he calls out for his mother. “Mama, mama. Mama!” he shouts. WRAL reported that his mother is deceased.
The deputies eventually roll Neville over onto his back and put a spit mask on him and place him in handcuffs. They stand Neville up and strap him into a chair and wheel him to a room. Neville is placed face down on a mattress on the floor as the deputies restrain him.
“Help me,” Neville shouts in the video as he groans. “I can’t breathe. Help.”
Neville says he can’t breathe 29 times during a roughly four-minute period shown in the video. Deputies eventually try to remove the handcuffs but the key breaks and they have to get a bolt cutter.
When the handcuffs are finally taken off, Neville is unresponsive. The video shows the nurse enters the room and begins CPR. Neville later died at a local hospital.
The death has led to protests in Winston-Salem, where the jail is located, WRAL reported. Michael Grace, an attorney for the family, told the outlet that he believes the officers’ actions caused Neville’s death.
“This was an avoidable death,” Grace said. “It clearly was a medical crisis. If they’d called EMS, he’d be alive today.”
Neville was being held at the jail after he was arrested for allegedly assaulting a woman in Guilford County, a spokesperson with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office told NBC News on Thursday.
The five detention center officers seen in the video were fired in July, the spokesperson said. They were identified as Sarah Poole, Cpl. Edward Roussel, Christopher Stamper, Sgt. Lovette Williams and Antonio Woodley.
The district attorney’s office announced in July that all five officers were each charged with involuntary manslaughter, along with the nurse, Michelle Heughins. A sixth officer was also fired by the department but has not been charged, the sheriff’s office spokesperson said.
Heughins was placed on administrative leave by her employer, Wellpath. A spokesperson for the company called the incident “tragic” and said the charges against Heughins are unfair.
“As shown in the video released today, when permitted to act, she worked diligently and compassionately to save Mr. Neville’s life,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “We believe the charges against her are unfair and not in keeping with the facts of the situation. She did not engage in misconduct and provided the level and type of care appropriate in the circumstances. She is a member of the Wellpath family, and she has our complete support.”
David Freedman, an attorney for Roussel, told NBC News in a phone interview Friday that he wants people to watch the video in its entirety before they cast judgment.
“I’ve watched the video and I do not believe there is any criminal activity that has occurred,” he said. “I would ask that people watch, before they form any sort of opinion, watch the entire video. If you see the whole video you can see people who were there — whether they were properly trained could be an issue — but they were following their training on how to help this individual that night and things went tragically wrong.”
Freedman said his client, as well as the other officers, have all been released from jail. The other four officers could not immediately be reached and it’s not clear if they have obtained attorneys.
The North Carolina Sheriff’s Association said in a statement to NBC News, “Mr. Neville’s death was a tragic situation. I commend Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough of Forsyth County for the professional, transparent, compassionate and caring manner in which he has dealt with the situation and with Mr. Neville’s family.”
Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough apologized to Neville’s family during a news conference on Tuesday and said he cried after watching the video.
“Your father has changed the way healthcare will be dispensed at the Forsyth County Detention Center as well as how it will be dispensed throughout this region,” he said. “I apologize to you and your family.”
The sheriff said that the death led to changes in training involving medical care providers and asked the family if he could change the name of a unit in the detention center to “John E. Neville Housing Unit.”
“We’re not doing that just because, we’re doing it as a reminder of the men and the women that work there of what happened that day,” he said. “We’re doing it as a reminder to let them know that life is paramount in how we do business.”