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North Carolina Case Involving Death of Black Prisoner: “I Can’t Breathe,” Revisited

Just before Neville, 56, lapsed into a coma at FCDC on December 2, 2019, he managed to rasp to the sheriff’s deputies and jail nurse who had hogtied him, “I can’t breathe.” Two days later, on December 4, 2019, he died at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center without ever having regained consciousness.

In the interim, Kimbrough’s office got O’Neill’s office to drop its charges against Neville. As a result, the death did not technically occur in custody, so the sheriff was relieved of any duty to report its details to the state Department of Health and Human Services. The death was not publicly reported for six months and then only under pressure from the Winston-Salem Journal.

It sounds like they rushed to get him out of custody so they would not have to report that death as a jail death,” said Kristie Puckett-Williams, manager of the Statewide Campaign for Smart Justice for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Disability Rights North Carolina Senior Attorney Susan Pollitt agreed, saying that it was shocked that in 2020 a (North Carolina) Sheriff continues to use this old maneuver to trick the system in place.”

Neville, 56, had been arrested by Kernersville police on an outstanding warrant for assault and booked into FCDC on December 1, 2019. Despite his age, he was assigned to a top bunk. A day later, Neville suffered a seizure and fell from his bunk to the cell’s concrete floor, where he was found by sheriff’s deputies and a jail nurse, Michelle Heughins, an employee of the jail’s for-profit health-care provider, Wellpath, formerly known as Correct Care Solutions.

Over the next 45 minutes, they compounded the initial error of putting Neville in harm’s way on an upper bunk with a series of acts so outrageous they might be called comical had they not cost him his life.

Vacillating between unconscious and confused semi-conscious states after his fall, Neville exhibited erratic movements, incoherently mumbling, “Help me up … Let me go” and piteous moans of “Mama.” Jailers first responded by forcing a bite mask on Neville’s head, then rolling him onto his stomach and placing him into handcuffs.

That’s when he began telling jailers, “I can’t breathe.”

They moved him first to a restraint chair and then put him on his stomach atop an observation cell’s bunk, where they then folded his legs up toward his back, after they had already removed his ankle shackles. He began pleading anew, “Please, I can’t breathe … Help me ... Let me go.”

What followed evoked Keystone Kops as jailers attempted in vain to remove Neville’s handcuffs. A key broke off in the keyhole of one cuff. They tried another key. It did not work. A pair of bolt cutters was procured. They malfunctioned. After a full 12 minutes of such efforts, a second pair of bolt cutters was located, and they worked. After finally cutting the handcuffs off, the nurse and jailers left a non-responsive Neville still lying on his stomach, and they exited his cell.

It was only then that Heughins noticed Neville was no longer breathing. She and the five jailers reentered the cell and placed Neville on his back. He was given CPR and transferred to a hospital where he died without ever regaining consciousness. The events were all captured on jail video, though that has not been publicly released.

The coroner’s office released its report on Thursday, July 2, 2020, stating that “positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint” triggered a cardiopulmonary arrest that caused the fatal brain injury resulting in Neville’s death.

Family members of Neville reportedly asked Sheriff Kimbrough to keep the death low-key, which he said was the reason for not making it public. However, Kimbrough did request an investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation.

After that, on Wednesday, July 8, 2020, the five jailers and the nurse — who by then had all been fired — were arrested and charged with manslaughter. Each was released on a $15,000 unsecured bond.

In addition to Heughins, 44, those charged are Lavette Williams, 47; Edward Roussel, 50; Christopher Stamper, 42; Antonio Woodley, 26; and Sarah Poole, 36.

Jailer Roussel is “cooperating with the authorities” according to his lawyer, David Freeman. Defending his accused employees, Sheriff Kimbrough said that “good men and women made bad decisions that day and, as a result, a good man died.”

District Attorney O’Neill will be prosecuting the six. At a press conference following the arrests, O’Neill said he would not release the jail video prior to trial so as to not taint possible jury panelists with “preconceived notions” about the case, which he placed within the context of “unrest that has gripped our world over the last several weeks” – apparently referring to nationwide protests that erupted after the May 2020 killing by Minneapolis police of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, and the March 2020 killing of Breonna Taylor by Louisville police during a botched raid.

Directing his next remarks to Neville’s two children, the sheriff continued, “As it relates specifically to your father, Mr. Neville, his death was avoidable and that is a tragic, singular fact.”

Shifting into a warning tone, O’Neill stated that “protesters who cross the line and break the law ... will be prosecuted. This is our home. This is our community, and we will protect it.”

A decision by Neville’s family to retain attorneys Michael Grace and Chris Clifton also drew protesters’ ire. The two have previously represented sheriff’s deputies and are personal friends with Kimbrough.

The Raleigh News & Observer counted Neville’s death among a record-high total of 46 in the state in 2019, with 40 percent involving “supervision failures.” 

A petition filed by the newspaper resulted in the release of the jail video on August 5, 2020, a day after Sheriff Kimbrough said he cried while watching it. The sheriff added that his department had begun a series of employee medical training sessions on August 1, 2020. He did not mention Wellpath, which has been sued over several FCDC deaths.

Meanwhile, the loophole that allowed Kimbrough to avoid reporting Neville’s death has drawn renewed interest from state Rep. Donny Lambeth, a Winston-Salem Republican who noticed it needed to be closed as far back as the 2018 legislative session.

“We should figure it out and get the lawyers to put language in there to make sure that that’s not a loophole,” said Lambeth, a former hospital administrator himself.

But the ACLU’s Puckett-Williams said that’s not enough, urging lawmakers to ensure better jail health care and less of the racially unbalanced policing that has drawn protesters to the nation’s streets in the middle of a global pandemic.

“The community extends far more grace to the system than the system extends to the community, and now we’re at a boiling point,” Puckett-Williams said.

As recently pointed out by The New York Times, “I can’t breathe” was reportedly uttered around 70 times during in-custody deaths over the last 10 years.