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‘Call If and When There Is a Time of Death’: NC Jail Staffers Accused of Ignoring Signs Black Man Was In Distress, Displaying Callousness Before His Death, Lawsuit Says

A lawsuit filed on Sept. 28 by the family of a man who died following his detention at a North Carolina jail blames jail staffers and detention officers for his death.

John Neville, a 56-year-old father of five, stopped breathing at the Forsyth County Jail in December 2019 while he was being held for a pending assault charge. He was transferred to a hospital and died two days later.

Neville’s son, Sean Neville, recently filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court in the Middle District of North Carolina. The suit alleges Neville’s death was caused by jail staffers pinning him in a prone position, and that detention officers repeatedly ignored signs he was in medical distress.

John Neville died after being restrained at a North Carolina jail in December 2019. (Photo: Forsyth County Jail video screenshot)

The suit makes reference to a note left by a captain with the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office for medical personnel at the hospital after Neville arrived there, which reads, “Call if and when there is a time of death and if an autopsy is performed. We need to know yes or no. Thank you.”

“The callousness of this note demonstrates that correctional defendants were more concerned with the potential fallout from their treatment of Mr. Neville than they were for Mr. Neville’s wellbeing,” the lawsuit said.

A judge released 40 minutes footage of staffers’ encounter with Neville last year. After Neville reportedly fell from a top bunk bed to a concrete floor, nurses and detention officers responded to the emergency.

Neville was in the floor in a seizure-like state, sweating and had blood in his mouth. He became agitated as a nurse tried to take his blood pressure and cried out and officers tried to restrain him using their body weight.

“Because Mr. Neville was unable to comply with the officers’ commands, they placed him in a prone restraint (similar to a hogtie) for a significant period of time, which impaired his respiratory and cardiac systems to the point that he had to be revived multiple times,” according to a copy of the lawsuit obtained by Atlanta Black Star.

A spit mask was placed over Neville‘s face and he was transferred to another room in a restraint chair. In the observation cell, he was pinned to the mattress and restrained by five officers as he pleaded for help and repeated that he couldn’t breathe.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe, please!” Neville said at one point.

“You’re breathing, because you’re talking, you’re yelling, you’re moving,” an officer replied. Footage shows Neville said he could not breathe dozens of times while he was pinned to the ground.

Officers removed Neville’s handcuffs and left him in the cell. A police report indicates that a nurse did not see Neville breathing at that time.

The lawsuit alleges an hour passed between when Neville displayed signs of a medical emergency and when he was taken to the hospital.

A district attorney announced last year that Neville died of brain injury, “due to positional, compressional asphyxia during prone restraint.”

The suit says of the restraint, “Not only was the use of a prone restraint on an unarmed, defenseless detainee who was experiencing a medical emergency an entirely unreasonable use of force, but the detention officers and nurse who purported to assist Mr. Neville altogether failed to recognize the seriousness of his condition.”

Neville was pronounced dead on Dec. 4. The autopsy also indicated that Neville had asthma and an altered mental state.

Five former detention officers: Lavette Maria Williams, Edward Joseph Roussel, Sarah Elizabeth Poole, Christopher Bryan Stamper and Antonio Maurice Woodley, and nurse Michelle Heughins, are all named as defendants in the suit. The suit also names Forsyth County and Wellpath LLC, the jail’s medical service provider at the time, as defendants.

The five officers and nurse have all been charged with involuntary manslaughter in Neville’s death. No trial date has been set. The suit describes the defendants’ actions as “willful, wanton, and done with reckless indifference to Mr. Neville’s rights and wellbeing,” and claims Neville’s civil rights were violated.

The suit seeks $300,000 in compensatory damages in addition to an unknown amount in punitive damages.

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