Grand Jury Indicts Nurse — Not Jail Officers — In Black Man's Death At Jail

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A North Carolina grand jury this week chose to indict a nurse, but not five former corrections officers, in the death of a Black man who died in 2019 while in custody at the Forsyth County Jail in Winston-Salem.

Fifty-six-year-old John Neville repeatedly yelled, "I can't breathe," while jail officers restrained him on his stomach for more than 12 minutes while unsuccessfully trying to remove his handcuffs. Neville had fallen out of his bed at the time officers restrained him, according to reports.

The nurse, Michelle Heughins, along with the five former corrections officers were all charged in Neville's death, but after the grand jury heard the case, they opted to only indict her. The New York Times reported Heughins, 46, was on-call at the time and employed by a private contractor, Wellpath.

Neville's son, Sean Neville, said in a statement that while they appreciated district attorney Jim O'Neill's efforts to submit the case to a grand jury, it was "disheartening that the videos of our father gasping for air and begging for mercy while he was bound and suffocated do not seem to have gained any purchase with Forsyth County or Wellpath."

"It's shameful that another Black life has been extinguished at the hands of law enforcement, and yet still, there is no accountability and no justice," Sean Neville said.

Heughin's attorney, Claire Rauscher told The Times Tuesday (April 5) that her client was not culpable in John Neville's death.

"She did not restrain him or hold him face down on a mat in a cell," Rauscher said in a statement. "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," the statement continues.

"She was the only person at Forsyth County Jail who worked to save his life. She will be fully vindicated at trial," Rauscher added.

The 56-year-old experienced an unknown medical incident that caused him to fall from the top bunk of the cell bed and onto the concrete floor. Officers and Heughins discovered Neville disoriented and took him to an observation cell. An autopsy report said that Neville was in and out of consciousness and officers covered his head with a mask after he tried to bite them, then rolled him onto his stomach, handcuffed his wrists and strapped him to a chair.

They moved him to another cell, where they put him face down on a mattress, removed ankle restraints and then folded his legs behind his back. Neville repeatedly said he couldn't breathe.

Officers failed to get handcuffs off after a key broke inside the cuffs and bolt cutters malfunctioned. Neville had been on his stomach for 12 minutes before they were able to release his left wrist from the restraint.

According to the autopsy report, John Neville died as a result of cardiopulmonary arrest caused by "positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint." Neville also had other medical conditions including asthma and "acute altered mental status," the report said.

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