Media sues to break secrecy, after NC deputies, nurse charged in jail inmate’s death

A coalition of media outlets filed a lawsuit Monday for public records in the death of North Carolina inmate John Neville, a Black man who suffocated and died after deputies restrained him in a controversial position for more than 11 minutes.

It’s the same position that Minneapolis police placed George Floyd in before his death and that a pulmonologist testified last month cut off a quarter of Floyd’s lung capacity.

The lawsuit also comes as the death of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City puts a national spotlight on police accountability and transparency in North Carolina, because the state does not let the public see body-camera footage without a court order, which isn’t always granted.

But Monday’s lawsuit was two years in the making because of a death 269 miles across the state from Elizabeth City.

Neville, a 56-year-old Greensboro man died on Dec. 4, 2019, after being held in the Forsyth County Detention Center on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back and his ankles lifted to his wrists.

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An autopsy report said Neville died from positional and compressional asphyxiation that caused a heart attack and brain injury.

Four deputies and a nurse are charged in his death.

Documents kept secret from public

The sheriff’s office, the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office and the State Bureau of Investigation kept Neville’s death a secret from the public.

It came to light after The News & Observer, acting on a tip, filed a petition with the courts for the release of the body-camera footage.

The newspapers, together with a coalition of other media outlets has been seeking more information.

The current fight focuses on documents the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ has that helped the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determine how Neville died. They include the entirety of an internal police investigation and the SBI report into his death.

Under North Carolina law, SBI reports are not public record. However, once that report was handed over to DHHS it became public.

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These are the same records that lawmakers tried to keep secret when passing Senate Bill 168 last summer after The N&O requested them in Neville’s case. The records remained public after public outcry led to a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper.

When Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill’s prosecutors learned DHHS was going to release the reports to The N&O in response to three public records requests, his office filed an emergency petition to have them sealed. The newspaper was not notified of his petition until after Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David Hall granted the seal.

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The coalition’s attorney, Mike Tadych, fought the seal the following week and Hall agreed that the records were public and unsealed them. But before DHHS released them, O’Neill notified the court that he would appeal and asked for them to be sealed again.

Hall agreed to keep the records sealed for 60 days, but he recognized that since O’Neill’s office had left both the media and DHHS out of his emergency petition, neither could be heard in the appellate court.

Tadych agreed the media would sue DHHS and the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to become a party. That happened Monday.

Neville’s last moments

Tadych has represented the coalition since May 2020 when The N&O asked a judge to release deputies’ body-camera footage showing Neville’s last moments in the jail.

The video was dramatic.

It showed Neville having a medical emergency in his cell, which his cellmate had reported as a possible seizure.

The sheriff’s office’s special response team came to the cell to check on Neville and moved him into a cell on another floor of the jail.

That’s when they placed him on the floor in prone restraint .

“I can’t breathe,” Neville said, his voice echoing off the cell walls. “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, help!”

Deputies didn’t listen.

“If you can talk, you can breathe,” a deputy answered.

During Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin’s trial, according to USA Today, a pulmonologist testified that that statement, also made to Floyd, is very, very dangerous” because it assumes just because Floyd’s brain was still working in one moment that he would still be breathing the next.

In Neville’s case he would shout he couldn’t breathe more than 30 times before he became unresponsive.

He died at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center after becoming comatose.

For more North Carolina government and politics news, listen to the Under the Dome politics podcast from The News & Observer and the NC Insider. You can find it on Pandora, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, iHeartRadio, Amazon Music, Megaphone or wherever you get your podcasts.

Under the Dome

With the start of the new year and a new legislative session, The News & Observer has launched a new Under the Dome podcast. We’re unpacking legislation and issues that matter to keep you updated on what’s happening in North Carolina politics twice a week on Monday and Friday mornings. Check us out here and sign up for our weekly Under the Dome newsletter for more political news.

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