John Neville, a 56-year-old Black man, died while in custody at the Forsyth County Jail in North Carolina. The autopsy shows he died because of how he was restrained, the same technique that led to George Floyd’s death in 2020.
A grand jury recently declined to indict all five former detention officers that held Neville down, but they did recommend manslaughter charges for Michelle Heughins. the lone nurse that was there to care for him.
It’s not clear why Heughins was charged while the others weren’t, considering she didn’t harm Neville in any way. Her lawyer says she should walk free, but she may soon find herself behind bars.
“I Can’t Breathe”
The incident in question occurred on Dec. 2, 2019. The autopsy shows that Neville stopped breathing after a group of five officers pinned him down to the floor. He was quickly transferred to a hospital where he died two days later. The act caused “positional and compressional asphyxiation that led to a heart attack and brain injury,” according to the report.
Video shows the officers held him with his arms behind his back with his legs up in the air for 12 minutes while they tried to cut his handcuffs off. All the while Neville cried that he couldn’t breathe with his face covered in blood and vomit while wearing a spit mask.
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe, please!” Neville said during the incident.
“You’re breathing, because you’re talking, you’re yelling, you’re moving,” an officer replied.
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill charged all six jail staffers, including the five detention officers and nurse Heughins, in July 2020. But the grand jury has just adjourned. They declined to recommend charges for the offices, but recommended manslaughter charges for Heighins.
O’Neill said he was surprised by the outcome and isn’t sure why the grand jury failed to press charges.
Neville’s family called the decision “shameful” and vowed to keep fighting for justice for John.
“It is shameful that another Black life has been extinguished at the hands of law enforcement, and yet still, there is no accountability and no justice,” said Sean Neville, John’s surviving son. “We will continue to fight for what is right and just.”
Singling Out the Nurse
Michelle Heughins was the nurse on call the night Neville died. Court documents show that he was being held for a pending assault charge in 2019.
Security footage shows that all five detention officers went into Neville’s cell after he fell off his bed in a seizure-like state.
“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,” lawsuit documents filed by the family read.
The officers then moved Neville to another cell where they cut off the handcuffs because the lock was broken. Once they removed the cuffs, they realized Neville was unconscious. They called Heughins to check on the prisoner. After a quick assessment, they all left the cell.
Outside the cell, the officers discussed checking for gear while the nurse watched Neville through the bars of the cell.
“Is he breathing?” Heughins asked the officers.
“Ok. Let’s go back in. We gotta make sure,” said one of the officers.
They all went back inside a moment later. Heughins said she couldn’t find a pulse and told the officers to flip Neville over.
Claire Rauscher, Heughins’ attorney, said that her client isn’t responsible for Neville’s death and that she doesn’t know why her client is the only one being charged with a crime.
“She did not restrain him or hold him face down on a mat in a cell,” Rauscher said. “She was not allowed to be in the cell as the other officers held him down.”
“She asked the detention officers to open the door and let her in when she thought he was not breathing and immediately began performing CPR,” Rauscher said. “She was the only person at the Forsyth County jail who worked to save his life. She will be fully vindicated at trial.”
O’Neill asked the State Bureau of Investigation to investigate the case after Neville’s death.
“We need to get with the family and the investigators and the people that are truly as invested in this case as we are and make a collective decision about what is the best way to pursue justice in this case,” O’Neill said.
Meanwhile, Neville’s family filed a federal civil lawsuit in 2021 against Heughins, Forsyth County and Wellpath LLC, the jail’s medical service provider at the time.
Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough said his “heart” and “prayers go out” to Neville’s family and all “those affected by this incident.”
“As it relates to the findings of the court and their determination, it would not be proper or ethical for me to comment as this is still a civil and criminal case up for litigation,” Kimbrough said in a statement. ‘Again, our prayers are still with the family and all those involved. May God give us peace and understanding.”