A North Carolina county and its sheriff’s office have agreed to pay $3 million to the family of a Black man killed in the county jail.
The agreement comes almost two months after a grand jury failed to indict corrections officers for John Neville‘s December 2019 death and pinned charges on a jail nurse.
Neville, 56, died two days after he was restrained by a group of guards in the prone position. The controversial move was used during the in-custody death of George Floyd. Both men told officers that they could not breathe. The Forsyth County sheriff has since banned the prone restraint.
“While the family hoped this could have been settled without litigation, we want to thank the County for their part in trying to do what justice requires,” an attorney for Neville’s son, Richard Keshian, said in a statement.
Neville died of a brain injury caused by “positional and compressional asphyxiation that led to a heart attack and brain injury,” the medical examiner’s report shows. Video footage shows Neville was on his stomach with his arms behind his back and his legs up to his wrist.
The guards only flipped the man over after realizing that he was unconscious. Neville was restrained on his stomach for a total of 19 minutes before the nurse, Michelle Heughins, tried to resuscitate him.
Neville’s family sued the detention officers, the nurse, Forsyth County and Wellpath LLC, the jail’s medical service provider, for damages in September 2021. The wrongful death suit alleges the defendants caused his death by hogtying him and ignoring his pleads for help.
“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,” the complaint said.
Neville had reportedly fallen off his bunk in a seizure-like state while being held for a pending assault charge. The nurse had found it difficult to take his blood pressure, so she called the guards for assistance. Five guards restrained Neville in another room, where they had to cut off his handcuffs.
“I can’t breathe!” Neville said a dozen times as the guards restrained him on the ground.
“You’re breathing because you’re talking, you’re yelling, you’re moving,” a guard responded.
Heughins and WellPath have asked the judge to put their civil court proceedings on hold while the criminal case against the nurse plays out in criminal court. Heughins was indicted for involuntary manslaughter in April.
Authorities and county officials did not publicly announce Neville’s death in December 2019 and only spoke about it after local paper News & Observer asked a judge to release the footage.
The settlement agreement, reached on May 25, resulted from mediation. Neville’s children would receive the award money as beneficiaries of his estate. It also dismisses any claims against the sheriff, his office, jail officials, or the county.