WRAL Investigates

Video shows inmate said 'I can't breathe' 29 times before death

Posted August 5, 2020 2:10 p.m. EDT
Updated August 5, 2020 10:26 p.m. EDT

— Protestors marched in Winston-Salem Wednesday after the Forsyth County Sheriff's Office, responding to a judge's order, released two videos showing the events that led to the death of county jail inmate John Neville.

WRAL News is part of a media collaborative that petitioned the court to release the video.

According to the autopsy report, Neville, 56, died on Dec. 4, 2019, from a brain injury that was caused by positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint, meaning while he was being held face down.

In one video from a deputy's body-worn camera, Neville is first on his back, apparently unconscious, as a nurse tries to wake him, saying, "Hey John, how you doing? You're okay, you're okay. It looks like you had a seizure."

Once awake, Neville appears to struggle against the deputies and nurse trying to restrain him, and they tell him to stop fighting. As he appears to calm down, breathing heavily on his back, they tell him he's had a medical emergency.

"Help me!" Neville shouts at the officers around him.

"We are helping you," a deputy responds.

As Neville struggles to sit up, deputies continue to hold him down on his back. He shouts, "Let me up!" several times, also apparently shouting "Mama" at one point.

A deputy says Neville is trying to bite and asks for shackles and a transport chair. They put a "spit mask" on him and roll him over, as Neville shouts, "Help me, help me, help me, help me please!"

Video from a different body-worn camera, shows the deputies working to restrain Neville, who is on the floor on his stomach. He says, "I can't breathe," over and over in the video.

The second video shows Neville with a spit mask over his head in a wheelchair, being transported by five deputies.

A nurse is shown taking his blood pressure, and then Neville is taken to a multi-purpose room where the deputies pin him down on the floor on his stomach while they try to remove his handcuffs. Some appear to be kneeling on Neville.

When a key is put in the handcuffs, it breaks off in the cuff, so another key cannot be used. Deputies try to use bolt cutters, but the first pair doesn't cut the metal.

During this time, Neville is heard saying "Help me!" and "I can't breathe!" dozens of times. Neville becomes quiet as the deputies wait for another bolt cutter to be brought from somewhere else.

The deputies, some of whom appear to still be kneeling on Neville, appear to joke with one another as they hold him down, with one officer telling another that the broken handcuffs will come out of his paycheck, and his reply that "Those were a good pair."

By the time a second set of bolt cutters is found to remove the cuffs, Neville had become unresponsive. The deputies call for a medical response, and another inmate can be heard shouting, "You guys killed him!"

After he was found to have no pulse, Neville was given CPR and taken to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His death was initially reported as having happened "out of custody" because he had been sent to the hospital.

Neville family attorney Michael Grace said there's no doubt that the actions of the deputies caused Neville's death.

"This was an avoidable death," Grace told WRAL News, saying that the restraint position Neville was put in by the Special Response Team responding to the incident is one that's known to pose a high risk of asphyxiation.

"It clearly was a medical crisis," Grace said. "If they'd called EMS, he'd be alive today."

"A lot of your viewers will see this video and see nothing wrong with it. They’re going to be looking for the police or the sheriff to hit or curse or demean Mr. Neville in some way, and they won’t see that," Grace told WRAL News. "But that act of omission is just as inhuman as putting a knee in his throat and choking him out as was done to the gentleman in Minneapolis. He is totally in their care, he has no ability to fend for himself, to do for himself."

On July 8, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill announced that five former detention center officers and a nurse have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in Neville’s death.

Multiple media outlets requested that videos associated with the incident be made public, and Superior Court Judge Greg Horne ruled on July 29 that they had to be released by noon on Aug. 5.

Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough said he cried as he watched the videos.

"I want you to know, as a result of that, there are many changes that have been made," Kimbrough said about the incident.

In a joint statement, NC Senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis called the footage "deeply disturbing."

"Our hearts go out to the Neville family, who deserve a full accounting of what happened and answers about John Neville’s tragic death," the statement said. "These issues are not easy, but addressing them is a responsibility we all share.”

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