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'I can't breathe' | Autopsy report details death of Forsyth County inmate John Neville

Five former jail officers and a nurse were charged in Neville's death.

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — New details in the death of Forsyth County inmate John Neville are coming to light in an autopsy report. 

Five former Forsyth County Sheriff's Office detention officers and a nurse were charged Wednesday with involuntary manslaughter in Neville's death, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O'Neill announced

Officials said Neville, 57, of Greensboro, died on Dec. 4, 2019, at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, four days after he was arrested and taken to the Forsyth County Jail. 

Neville was being held on a pending charge of assault on a female.

The district attorney said that around 3:24 a.m. on Dec. 2, Neville "suffered an unknown medical condition" while asleep. He fell from the top bunk in his cell and onto the concrete floor.

Jail detention officers and an on-call nurse found Neville "disoriented and confused." Neville was moved to an observation cell, according to O'Neill.

"It was over the next approximately 45 minutes that Mr. Neville would sustain injuries that would eventually cause him to lose his life," O'Neill said.

The Forsyth County Sheriff's Office and Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough called for the State Bureau of Investigation to investigate Neville's death on Dec. 5, 2019.

Credit: Forsyth County Sheriff's Office
John Elliot Neville, died while in custody at the Forsyth County Detention Center in December 2019. Five former officers and a nurse were charged in his death on July 8, 2020.

The findings of that investigation were turned over to the Forsyth County District Attorney's Office in April. An unreleased video of the incident was turned over as part of that investigation as well.

Dr. Patrick Lance of Wake Forest Baptist Health conducted an autopsy on Neville.

O'Neill said the final report of the autopsy revealed Neville died from a brain injury after he was restrained while in custody. 

Lance's report said Neville repeatedly told detention officers he couldn't breathe as they tried to remove his handcuffs. According to the medical examiner's report, Neville had a history of asthma.

On Dec. 2, about 24 hours after he arrived at the detention center, Neville had a "seizure-like" episode, the report says. According to the autopsy report, Neville's cellmate said they went to sleep the night of the Dec.1. Neville was on the top bunk and the cellmate on the bottom bunk. During the night, the cellmate said he heard a loud bang in the cell. He said he first thought he was dreaming, but he saw Neville on the concrete cell floor, shaking. The cellmate pressed the emergency button in the cell and FCDC staff escorted him out and into a nearby cell.

Neville was found on the cell floor with vomit on his clothing, he was sweating, and there was blood around his mouth, the autopsy report said. Staff placed bedding or clothing under Neville's head as he lay his right side, "snoring, and unresponsive." A nurse applied pressure to Neville's chest to which he responded by opening his eyes. 

After Neville regained consciousness, he was "incoherent, seemed confused, uncooperative, and became aggressive – he tried to sit up, kick, and swing his arms." While on his back, Special Response Team members held him with his arms and legs held down.

Neville became unresponsive again and the nurse brought him back again, the autopsy report says. He "mumbled incoherently, but said, 'Let me go,' 'Help me up,' and 'Mama' plus a few other disconnected phrases," according to the autopsy.

A spit mask was placed over Neville's head after he tried to bite detention officers. His ankles were secured with metal restraints and SRT members rolled him onto his stomach to handcuff him, the autopsy report says While on his stomach, Neville uttered, "I can't breathe." Staff helped him to his feet and helped him walk to a restraint chair where his hands and ankles were cuffed, the report says. While taking Neville to a multi-purpose room on another floor, Neville relived himself of fecal matter, according to the report. 

"During transport, he seemed confused and said, 'Help me,'" the report says

According to the autopsy report, Neville was taken to a new cell, removed from the restraint chair and placed face down on a mattress to have the handcuffs removed. The report says a chokehold was never used and officers restrained him by holding his shoulders, arms and legs. Neville uttered, "Please,” “I can’t breathe,” “Help me,” and “Let me go,” as he lay on his stomach, the autopsy report says.

As officers tried to remove the cuffs, the key broke inside the lock. Officers tried another key and bolt cutters and could not get handcuffs off. The last phrase Neville made was around three and a half minutes after he was placed face down on the mattress. About four minutes after he was placed face down, staff members straightened his legs and restrained them.

The autopsy report says Neville, still on his stomach, stopped moving and talking while officers got a second set of bolt cutters. Twelve minutes later, the handcuffs were removed and the staff left the observation cell. 

According to the autopsy report, the nurse said she couldn't see Neville breathing or moving so they re-entered the cell, laid him on his back and began CPR -- 19 minutes after he initially entered the cell. According to the medical examiner's report, EMS was called.

EMS took over CPR and the medical examiner's report says there were no "obvious injuries" on Neville's body. The emergency workers checked Neville's heart and it was not beating so they opened his airway and found signs of breath, the medical examiner's report says. EMS gave Neville epinephrine, they found a pulse and continued CPR, the report says. 

Neville was taken to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center where they tried several times to resuscitate him, according to the medical examiner's report. Testing showed he suffered a severe kidney injury. A drug test showed Neville had marijuana in his system, the report says. Neville was given medication and moved to ICU. After brain death testing on Dec. 4, 2019, he was pronounced dead at 9:22 a.m.

His official cause of death according to the autopsy report is " complications of hypoxic ischemic brain injury due to cardiopulmonary arrest (resuscitated) due to positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint."

The autopsy report also showed Neville had cuts on his forehead, bruises to his upper body, bruises just beneath the asking on his wrist, elbow and left arm near his shoulder.

The five detention center officers charged in in Neville's death are:

  • Lavette M. Williams
  • Antonio M. Woodley
  • Edward J. Roussel
  • Christopher B. Stamper
  • Sarah E. Poole
Credit: Forsyth Co Sheriff's Office
Five former Forsyth Co. Detention Center Corrections Officers and one nurse (not pictured) were charged with involuntary manslaughter in the December 2019 death of inmate John Neville.

The nurse charged in his death is Michelle Heughins. 

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