A North Carolina man detained in a county jail told officers “I can’t breathe” more than two dozen times before he died as a result of a brain injury and cardiac arrest last December, partial body-camera videos released by the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office shows.
The sheriff publicly apologized to Neville’s family on Tuesday, and North Carolina officials have called for a full investigation. Protesters rallied for justice in the city of Winston-Salem following the release of the video, which was ordered by a court after several local and national media organizations sued for its release.
Neville was arrested on December 1 for alleged misdemeanor assault, and a day later, in the early morning of December 2, he suffered a seizure while in detention. In the first video, officers are shown kneeling on Neville as he receives medical attention and struggles to get up as he regains control of his senses. Officers are shown kneeling into Neville’s side as he lies on his back.
Later, the deputies are seen pinning him down by his arms and legs. Several times throughout the video, Neville is heard screaming for his mother. Eventually, a spit mask is placed on him and he’s loaded into a wheelchair.
In the second video, Neville is shown being transported to another cell. He’s told to lie face down on a mattress as deputies remove his handcuffs, with at least one of them kneeling on him as Neville’s legs are folded in a hogtie position.
Almost immediately, Neville begins screaming for help, repeatedly telling officers over and over, dozens of times, that he can’t breathe as officers struggle to remove his handcuffs. In total, Neville uttered the words 29 times, according to WRAL, one of the outlets that sued for the release of the video.
“You’re breathing fine,” one deputy tells Neville. “Stop moving.”
Later in the second video, the key for the handcuffs snap off inside of the handcuffs, so another deputy leaves to find a bolt cutter, which doesn’t work. Two officers also joke about the handcuffs breaking, with one officer heard saying it was coming out of the other’s paycheck. “Those are actually a good pair, too,” the owner of the handcuffs responds.
Neville is unresponsive by the time the second pair of bolt cutters is found. After briefly leaving Neville’s naked body in the cell—one officer informed the others that he was going to take Neville’s pants off, though the reason for that is unclear—the officers and nurse return to perform CPR, as one says Neville’s breathing is “faint.” Another inmate yells, “You killed him!” The end of the video shows the nurse attempting CPR.
After being transported to a hospital, Neville slipped into a coma and died on December 4. Because Neville physically died outside of the prison, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees jail safety, was never given full information about Neville’s death and never investigated it, the News & Observer reported last month.
On July 8, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill charged five officers and the nurse with involuntary manslaughter. As a result of the response of the officers and the nurse, O’Neill said that Neville “sustain[ed] injuries that would eventually cause him to lose his life."
An autopsy found that Neville died as a result of “a brain injury caused by cardiac arrest which in turn was caused by compressional and positional asphyxiation during prone restraint,” according to the News & Observer. “Prone restraint” describes the position Neville was placed in.
On Tuesday, the day before the release of the video, Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough publicly apologized to Neville’s family. He also offered to rename part of the jail after Neville “as a reminder to let them know that life is paramount in the way that we do business.”
“History has tied us together, forever,” Kimbrough told Neville’s Sean son, who attended the press conference. “I apologize again for what took place on that day, apologize to you and your family.”
Additionally, North Carolina Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr released a joint statement on Wednesday calling the footage “deeply disturbing” and saying Neville’s family “deserve[s] a full accounting of what happened and answers about John Neville’s tragic death.” Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Jones said the video was “painful to watch” and said Wednesday was a “difficult day for our city.”
On Wednesday night, protesters rallied in Winston-Salem, staging a die-in at a city park. By nightfall, the protest had turned into a prayer vigil.
Cover: Winston-Salem Journal