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Black Inmate Screamed ‘I Can’t Breathe’ More Than 20 Times As Prison Guards Restrained Him; He Later Died

North Carolina father John Neville, 56, was shown a “very definite lack of respect for human dignity, for human life, especially a Black human life in jail,” his lawyers said of newly released video showing the events that led to his death.

By Dorian Geiger

A North Carolina father shouted “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times and called out for his mother in newly released footage showing him being restrained by prison guards days before his death.

John Neville, 56, was put in a “hog-tie” position by prison guards at Forsyth County Jail in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Dec. 2. Video of the incident shows Neville struggling to breathe. He died at a hospital days later. A medical examiner concluded that a brain injury — triggered after his heart stopped beating and deprived his brain of oxygen — was the cause of death.

The 56-year-old was a father of two. 

Five former jail officers, including a nurse, were charged with involuntary manslaughter following his death, the New York Times reported.

Last week, a judge ordered the release of guard body camera footage showing Neville’s fatal confrontation at the county jail, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

John Neville

One of the videos, reviewed by Oxygen.com, shows a group of guards clustered around Neville while he’s being held in a chair. There’s a restraining bag affixed to his head. Neville, wearing a dark jumpsuit, hysterically pleads with guards, telling them dozens of times, “I can’t breathe.”

Neville  shouts “Help me!” and complains about his wrists as guards appear to transfer him to a holding cell and attempt to remove handcuffs that are on him.

“Get off my wrists, I can’t breathe!” he told the guards. 

“You need to relax so I can get the cuffs off,” one guard responded. A moment later, Neville was told to “relax.”

His desperate cries persisted. 

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“Let me go!” Neville shouted.” “Let me go! I can’t breathe! Let me go! Please! Please! I can’t breathe!”

Forsyth County correctional staff, however, continued to downplay his alarm. At one point, a guard tells Neville to stop yelling, calm down, and that he’s wasting his breath.

“You’re breathing because you’re talking, you’re yelling, and you’re moving,” the prison guard told him. “You need to stop. You need to relax. Quit resisting us.”

Neville is later placed on his back. His breathing is labored and he appears to go in and out of consciousness. A nurse attempts to take his blood pressure as the 56-year-old continues to struggle and gasp for breath.

“You’re having a medical problem,” prison staff tells him. “Let medical handle this.”

He’s eventually placed in the hog-tie position by guards. The video appears to show Neville’s legs bent back towards his buttocks with his arms held behind his back.

Neville, in apparent agony, then calls out for his “mama” several times. 

Neville was pronounced dead on Dec. 4, 2019 at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. An autopsy concluded he died due to “positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint,” the New York Times reportedHe had been in jail on allegations he had assaulted a woman.

The family’s legal counsel said Neville shouted “I can’t breathe” 24 times. Attorney Mike Grace, described the graphic videos as displaying a “very definite lack of respect for human dignity, for human life, especially a Black human life in jail.”

“The video won’t show anyone kicking Mr. Neville or hitting Mr. Neville or actively attacking him,” Grace said in a statement, according to the Washington Post. “They just didn’t give a damn about him, and I don’t know which is worse. It was a life, according to the coroner, that he shouldn’t have died. Didn’t have to die.”

Earlier this week, prior to the video’s release, Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough also acknowledged and apologized for the incident.

"I apologize, again, for what took place on that day," Kimbrough said, WXII 12 reported. "I will continue to stand with you through this process. History has tied us together, forever, and I will continue to stand with you and stand on the truth and what is right."

The sheriff’s words were welcomed by Neville’s family, according to their lawyer. 

"We certainly appreciate the sheriff’s honesty, his openness and his willingness to put a little salve, a little balm on this wound for the family and to acknowledge that there were mistakes — and as the coroner said in his report, this was a man who didn’t have to die," Grace said, though he added "it won't bring John Neville back."

Following the police deaths of Eric Garner, George Floyd, and other unarmed Black men who uttered “I can’t breathe” in their final moments alive, the phrase has emerged as a symbol of police brutality — and battle cry for Black Lives Matter movement.