The death of a Black man in a Memphis jail after a fight with corrections officers has been classified as a homicide, according to a just-released autopsy report.
Gershun Freeman, 33, died at the Shelby County Jail in Memphis on October 5, 2022. The autopsy report, conducted by the county medical examiner and released Thursday, says Freeman “had a cardiac arrest” after the altercation, which ended in officers restraining him. “CPR was initiated,” but unsuccessful. Freeman was pronounced dead at the scene. The Shelby County District Attorney’s office is now reviewing his death.
The case is attracting attention in a city still coming to terms with the violent police beating death of Tyre Nichols on January 7. VICE News has confirmed that the Nichols’ family attorney, Benjamin Crump, will also represent the family of Gershun Freeman.
Crump’s local co-counsel, Jake Brown, told VICE that he has watched surveillance video of the incident inside the jail.
“The video began with Mr. Freeman in an isolation cell, naked,” Brown said. “And he was shouting at the camera that was in the cell… there were no sounds and [we] couldn’t make out what he was saying, but he was very agitated about something, possibly having some sort of psychotic episode.”
The autopsy report, obtained by VICE News, noted a past history of psychosis.
“Not long after, the camera switched to one outside of the cell, and you could see several officers come to his door and open it. And it’s not clear why they opened it,” Brown told VICE. “Mr. Freeman ran out of his cell.”
At that point, Brown said a group of officers arrived and appeared to try to apprehend him, “but they were also striking him repeatedly with batons, fists… at least one officer struck him on the head with what appeared to be a pepper spray container.”
Brown said the corrections officers, who are deputies with the Shelby County Sheriff’s office which oversees the jail, also sprayed him with oil-based chemical irritants, and the spray made Freeman’s body slippery and hard to restrain.
“There was pronounced striking, [and] I’m not an expert on this but it seemed to be that there could have been more efficient ways to get ahold of this guy and subdue him rather than just striking him. But that’s what was happening,” Brown said.
According to Brown, the surveillance video then shows Freeman running out of the unit, called a “pod,” through multiple open doors, and up an escalator to an upper floor.
“When he got to the upper floor, he was sort of surrounded and then sort of set upon by at least three or four deputies, who had him face down on the ground, they were on top of him. And they stayed on top of him for several minutes at least.”
Brown said the video shows medical personnel in scrubs eventually arriving, and attempting to render treatment, but when they picked up Freeman’s body, it was limp and there was a puddle of blood under where he had been lying, especially around his head.
The autopsy found Freeman’s cause of death to be exacerbation of “cardiovascular disease due to physical altercation and subdual.” The autopsy classifies the death as a homicide, but notes that it is “not meant to definitively indicate criminal intent."
The autopsy also noted multiple contusions on Freeman’s body, scalp lacerations and multiple hemorrhages in his head and neck. Brown says one of those hemorrhages, a 7 by 3 centimeters on the large muscle in Freeman’s neck that runs parallel to the carotid artery, suggests consistent pressure applied on Freeman’s neck.
“What we're looking at now is trying to determine the likelihood that that was the result of a knee on the neck or some kind of choke hold used,” Brown says. His team has commissioned an independent autopsy by a forensic pathologist based in Little Rock, Arkansas, which has not yet been completed.
Freeman had only been booked into the Shelby County jail four days earlier, on charges of aggravated kidnapping and domestic violence. His bond was set at $75,000.
In a statement, the Shelby County District Attorney General Steve Mulroy says upon learning of the death in October, he “immediately called in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to investigate.” But after receiving the autopsy report on Wednesday evening, his office announced that its own Justice Review Unit will “review” the TBI’s investigation and make a recommendation to DA Mulroy once complete.
In a phone call with VICE News, the Shelby County Sheriff’s office declined to comment on the case, noting that it was an active investigation.
Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, Jr. is currently a candidate for mayor of Memphis. The election is scheduled for the one-year anniversary of Freeman’s death, October 5, 2023.
Brown said Freeman’s family wants answers and accountability from the Sheriff’s department.
“They are trying to come to terms with the fact that their son went into the Shelby County Jail on his own two feet and, the way his mother puts it, he came out with a toe tag.”
Follow Nora Neus on Twitter.