In the wake of a horrific death of a Forsyth jail inmate, public accountability, transparency and responsibility are winning the day. As new videos are set to be released, can it hold?
On August 5, the public will see first-hand via newly released videos the horrific death of 56-year-old John Elliott Neville inside the Forsyth County jail.
In December, the Greensboro man died in a hospital three days after being booked into the Forsyth County jail, for assault on a female. The sheriff made no announcement about the death, and an assistant county attorney told a reporter in March the inmate had become infirm in jail — cause unknown — and had been released from custody.
Shortly after Neville’s December 2019 arrest, he fell from his top bunk in his cell and his cellmate hit the “panic” button. From that point on, a truly shocking and tragic series of events unfolded.
As described in gut wrenching detail by the News & Observer, Neville died a terrible death. During his medical episode he was secured to a chair, his hands were handcuffed behind his back and metal restraints were placed on his ankles.
In an observation cell, they removed his chair restraints, and with assistance Neville followed instructions to walk into the cell and kneel. He was placed face down on his stomach onto a mattress that had been placed on the floor.
He continued to writhe. Deputies again handcuffed him behind his back and his legs were placed into metal restraints.
Deputies restrained him by his shoulders, and legs. They never put pressure on his neck, the report says.
They took his ankle restraints off and raised his legs toward his back, placing him into the prone restraint position. This type of restraint is controversial among law enforcement agencies because it has a history of leading to suffocation and death.
“Please, I can’t breathe,” Neville said. “Help me. Let me go.”
Deputies did try to remove his handcuffs, but the key broke off in the left handcuff keyhole.
Another key was used but was unable to unlock the handcuff.
A bolt cutter malfunctioned.
It had been five minutes now, and he was still in prone restraint.
Twelve minutes into prone restraint, a bolt cutter finally sliced through the metal securing his left hand and they were able to get him out of the position.
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill charged five former sheriff’s deputies and a nurse with felony involuntary manslaughter in Neville’s death. O’Neill said the injury was caused by deputies using prone restraint, a controversial technique to restrain an inmate. Neville went into cardiac arrest at the jail due to compressional and positional suffocation. A lack of blood flow to the brain led to the injury that ultimately killed him.
Much of this ordeal might have remained hidden from public view if not for the dogged shoe leather reporting of Danielle Battaglia, who began working on the story this summer. The Lenoir-Rhyne University graduate recently began working on the political team for the News and Observer, but cut her teeth covering crime and the courts in Reidsville, North Carolina, and then throughout the Triad for the Greensboro News and Record.
Battaglia has been dogged in her pursuit of public records in the case, including release of the videos. Clearly, she and the media backing her efforts have secured an important victory for government transparency. A victory, the family of Neville now sees the importance of after initially expressing reservations about releasing the footage.
The family said in a statement:
“Wednesday will be an emotional day not only for us but for so many others in this city, state and across the country. We would like to reiterate our strong desire that any protests be peaceful and honorable and free from violence or destruction in any form towards businesses, property and citizens including the individuals who have been charged in our father’s death. Justice for our father will not result from violence, pain, or suffering.”
Battaglia’s work has also helped reboot a serious call for reform. Most astonishing about this story, is how an inmate dies under highly questionable circumstances and nobody is made aware of it for six months? The News and Observer detailed how that happened. It is hard to see how taking an inmate to a hospital with life threatening injuries and releasing him from custody while in the hospital is anything but an effort to avoid public accountability.
Reforming the obscene loophole is now under serious consideration, as it should be.
Since Neville’s horrific death came to the attention of a dedicated young reporter, we have seen some bright spots shine through this dark tragedy.
Solid shoe leather reporting led to holding government accountable for its actions and its attempts to avoid public scrutiny.
That reporting has led to the release of important public documents, records and soon videos that the public has a right to see.
Serious reform efforts are being discussed to prevent the hiding from the public of deaths like this one.
The family of Neville has expressed over and over they want peaceful and non-violent forms of expression. In a time of great sorrow, they have shown a desire for peace and productive justice.
Despite running for state attorney general, Forsyth County district attorney Jim O’Neill made no public comments before he charged five former sheriff’s deputies and a nurse with felony involuntary manslaughter in Neville’s death. O’Neil made no political statements, used no inflammatory language. He protected his city, the integrity of the judicial system and the rights of the accused who are presumed innocent until proven otherwise.
We really have seen some admirable responses to a horrendous situation.
Will this change with the release of a highly charged video, with racial overtones that will make everyone angry and sick to their stomachs? Let’s hope not. Let’s pray not. Not for our state, and nothing that will tarnish Neville’s memory or justice for his family. This is a time where we really can be united.