A decision should come Friday on whether video from the Forsyth County jail will be made public to shed light on the death of John Elliott Neville. That footage, according to an attorney for Neville’s family, shows John Neville telling jail officers 24 different times that he could not breathe while he was being restrained.
The Winston-Salem Journal and the News & Record of Greensboro are part of a media coalition petitioning a judge to publicly release the video, including body camera footage from his arrest and other recordings that show what happened while he was in the jail.
Superior Court Judge Greg Horne said he would issue a decision about the video footage on Friday.
Neville, 56, a Greensboro resident, died of a brain injury on Dec. 4, 2019, at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. His death came three days after Kernersville police arrested him on a warrant charging that he assaulted a female in Guilford County. Neville was placed in the Forsyth County Jail.
The brain injury he sustained while in the jail occurred because his heart stopped beating, which deprived his brain of oxygen, according to the autopsy report. He asphyxiated while being restrained with his arms behind his back and his legs folded in a “hog-tie” position.
Five former detention officers and a nurse have been charged with involuntary manslaughter in Neville’s death: Lt. Lavette Maria Williams, 47; Cpl. Edward Joseph Roussel, 50; Officer Christopher Bryan Stamper, 42; Officer Antonio Maurice Woodley Jr., 26; Officer Sarah Elizabeth Poole, 36; and nurse Michelle Heughins, 44.
The Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office did not publicly acknowledge the death for seven months and released limited information on June 26 only after questions from the Journal. Neville’s death has sparked protests and gained national attention, with protesters accusing Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill and Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. of a cover-up. They have both denied those allegations.
On Tuesday, the children of John Neville issued a statement through their attorneys, Chris Clifton and Michael Grace, supporting the release of body camera videos and jail surveillance footage from the night their father asphyxiated. Grace said earlier this month that the family opposed releasing the videos.
In Courtroom 6A Wednesday, attorney Mike Tadych, representing the news organizations that petitioned for the video release, said it is important for the public to know “what did or did not happen” in Neville’s death.
He said that, in other cases, the release of law-enforcement video has cleared up misconceptions, and he argued that “the more information, the better” should be the watchword in these kinds of cases.
“This case presents a compelling public interest that can’t be denied,” Tadych said, adding that the Neville family’s decision to drop opposition to the release of law-enforcement videos shows that they too see the case as having wider implications for the general public.
Tadych went on to say that any attempt to control pre-trial publicity would be “a futile gesture.”
Outside the Forsyth County Hall of Justice, 11 protesters stood on Main Street during the court hearing. They had signs that said, “Justice for John Neville,” “Forsyth County Drop Wellpath,” “Release the Videos,” and “We Demand Action.”
Two protesters wrote similar messages in chalk on the sidewalk in front of the courthouse.
Tony Ndege, a protest organizer for Black Lives Matter Winston-Salem, led the protesters in chanting, “Say his name, John Neville,” “We have questions, Sheriff Kimbrough” and “We have questions, Jim O’Neill.”
Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition also have protested over John Neville’s death and have led an all-day, occupy-like event at Bailey Park since July 15. The organizations didn’t call for the release out of respect for the family’s wishes. Their position has changed due to the family’s statement on Tuesday.
Kimbrough spoke briefly, saying that when the family wanted news about their father’s death kept quiet, he agreed to their wishes. And now that they no longer oppose public release of the videos, he said he continues to stand with the family. He issued a statement later Wednesday to reiterate what he said in court.
Arguing against release was an unusual coalition of prosecutors and defense attorneys.
They struck the same theme over and over again: Releasing the videos would threaten the defendants’ ability to get a fair trial.
“A defendant charged in the state of North Carolina should not be tried in the court of public opinion,” O’Neill said.
The very safety of defendants could be at stake, O’Neill and defense attorneys argued.
“We are really concerned about the effect this video will have … on a fair process,” said Karen Gerber, who is representing Lavette Williams, the former jail lieutenant. “We are concerned about the potential of harm to Mrs. Williams. I am concerned that releasing the video could dissuade witnesses from coming forward.”
J.D. Byers, the attorney representing former jail officer Chris Stamper, said that his client “had to move out of fear from his house and fear for the safety of his family.”
Byers went on to say that the video will in fact be released someday but that now is not the time. “The case should be tried in a courtroom, not in the media,” he said.
David Freedman and other attorneys argued that, because the video consists of hours of footage, the media would invariably reduce it to snippets that would be shown in isolation, taking the material out of context and spreading misinformation.
Attorneys for Michelle Heughins, the nurse charged in Neville’s death, filed a motion Monday opposing release of the videos, saying it would deny her the right to a fair trial.
“In addition, the release of the recordings in this case may harm Ms. Heughins’ reputation and/or jeopardize her safety if the recordings are edited or altered to suggest that she committed or failed to commit certain conduct,” her attorneys contend in the motion.
On the other hand, Michael Grace, the attorney for the Neville family, said that those arguing against the video’s release “fail to understand what is going on in the court of public opinion.”
Grace said he has watched the video footage and said, contrary to some media reports, Neville said “I can’t breathe” exactly 24 different times.
Grace argued that more harm is being done by people gossiping about the case than would be done by showing the video to the public.
He said that if the video is not released, that will be seen by people as one more example of a cover-up.
Brienne Neville, one of John Neville’s children, issued a statement after the hearing that said in part, “We are expected to have pity for those charged, and make no mistake, we do. We are told they have received threats or have had to move for fear of their lives. At least they have a life to fear for, our father does not.”
According to a motion filed by O’Neill, “there are video recordings from various angles, with audio, that capture the activities and movements of the charged defendants, and their subsequent conduct, in response to Mr. Neville’s initial medical crisis.”
The News & Observer in Raleigh filed the initial petition in Forsyth Superior Court for the video’s release. An amended petition was filed Friday that listed the members of the coalition, including WXII, The Associated Press, WRAL, WUNC Public Radio, Carolina Public Press, WBTV of Charlotte and WTVD of Raleigh and Durham.
Neville’s death has sparked daily protests and demands for transparency in Winston-Salem.
In separate protests by these groups, more than 50 people have been arrested and charged with impeding traffic. Out of that total, 35 people were arrested this weekend and on Tuesday on charges that they blocked traffic at Liberty and Fourth streets and Cherry and Fourth streets.
Months after John Elliott Neville died, his children and other family members grieved in private. Now, John Neville’s death is at the center of protests that have broken out in Winston-Salem the last several weeks.
But on Wednesday afternoon, Sean Neville, the administrator of his father’s estate, remembered his father as the one who could ease his nervousness over a public speaking engagement just by walking into the room.
Five of John Neville’s children — Sean Neville, Brienne Neville, Kris Neville, Natasha Martin and Tre Stubbs — attended a Wednesday hearing in Forsyth Superior Court over whether to publicly release video footage about what happened at the Forsyth County Jail that ultimately led to John Neville’s death. The judge said he will issue a decision on Friday.
The day before, the family issued a statement through their attorneys, Michael Grace and Chris Clifton, saying they supported the release of the video footage.
Sean Neville said he’s seen the footage, which Grace said includes John Neville pleading with detention officers that he couldn’t breathe 24 different times. According to three independent sources, the response from detention officers at least twice was, “Come on buddy, if you can talk, you can breathe.” Five detention officers and a nurse have been charged with involuntary manslaughter.
“I’ve seen it,” he said. “I’ve watched it from start to finish.”
The video footage is hard to watch, but as family members continued to talk, they decided that releasing the footage could help prevent the next death at the Forsyth County Jail or another jail.
“Let voters see it. Let our community see it. Even though this isn’t optimal, this is what we feel is necessary,” Sean Neville said.
Brienne Neville, one of John Neville’s daughters, sent a statement after the hearing.
“We are expected to have pity for those charged and make no mistake, we do,” she said. “We are told they have received threats or have had to move for fear of their lives. At least they have a life to fear for, our father does not.”
She said she does not condone violence or retaliation. “We do, however, encourage the public to peacefully protest and continue to push for reform,” she said. “Our efforts are not just for justice for our father but for your fathers, your children, your families who daily feel the pain and pressure of racism and police brutality. So fight with us, not against us.”
Brienne and Kris have visited Bailey Park, where Triad Abolition Project and the Unity Coalition have staged all-day, occupy-like events since July 15 in their efforts to seek answers about John Neville’s death. Fifty-five people from the groups have been arrested and charged with impeding traffic since July 8, the day Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill announced criminal charges.
Sean Neville asked people to remember that John Neville was a person.
“With all due respect to the media, he’s a story,” he said. “With all due respect to the protesters, he’s a cause. To me and my family, he’s a human being; he’s a father.”
He also defended Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr., whom some protesters have accused of covering up Neville’s death. Sean Neville said the family asked Kimbrough to keep silent about the death. At the hearing, O’Neill said the medical examiner needed time to determine the cause of death, and he could not move to file any charges until he had a cause of death. That cause of death didn’t come until July, when the medical examiner finalized the autopsy report, he has said.
Sean Neville said his father was protective of his family and supported them, even when he didn’t always like his children’s choices.
“He was always proud of us,” he said.
Sean Neville stepped in front of a small bank of cameras and microphones Wednesday in what little shade was offered by the Forsyth County Hall of Justice.
A crowd had gathered at the courthouse in downtown Winston-Salem to hear arguments for and against the release of video that shows the last moments of his father’s life. John Neville, 56, died in a hospital in December 2019 from injuries suffered in the Forsyth County jail.
“OK if I take this off?” Sean Neville asked, pointing to his face covering.
And after that small nod to his own physical comfort, he proceeded to offer a measure of support to the community in explaining his family’s decision to support the public release of video recordings that will lay bare private pain.
“If you want to stand up for us, if you feel the pain we do, then react the way we do,” he said.
Sean Neville and his siblings were among the last to enter the largest courtroom in the Hall of Justice on Wednesday.
They passed Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough in the hall and exchanged warm greetings before taking their seats — an acknowledgement of his support.
“I have stood with them from the beginning,” Kimbrough would say later while telling Judge Greg Horne that he supported the family’s position on the release of video that will not show his office’s finest hour.
All in all, it was a remarkable turn of events in the ongoing narrative surrounding John Elliott Neville’s death.
For months, the family opposed the release of body-camera and jailhouse security camera footage of the incident.
And with reason.
Would you want millions to view again and again the last moments of a loved one’s life? Particularly under such trying circumstances?
John Neville lay hog-tied and prone on a jailhouse floor reportedly uttering two dozen times an infamous phrase, “I can’t breathe.”
He died at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center on Dec. 4, three days after being booked into the jail.
“We were grieving,” Sean Neville said.
The sheriff’s office — Kimbrough — didn’t make public Neville’s death for seven months and provided only limited information June 26. And that was only after reporters asked about it.
“He never meant for it to be kept silent,” Sean Neville said. “We (the family) asked him to. (Staying quiet) was not the decision he was going to make.”
That, too, is understandable. No one would want to make a family’s sudden grief worse; Kimbrough made an emotional decision and stuck with it.
“He never even asked us why,” Sean Neville said. “He said, ‘If that’s what you want, that’s what I’ll do.’”
But what he failed to consider more fully was his responsibility to voters, taxpayers and citizens to run an honorable, lawful operation and be completely transparent in doing so.
By agreeing to keep Neville’s death quiet, Kimbrough allowed — albeit unintentionally — the perception of cover-up to grow and fester.
The sheriff seemed to acknowledge as much when he spoke to the court and said he, too, supports the release of the video.
“I have stood with the family from the beginning,” he said. “I have to be concerned with the county as a whole. I have concern as the sheriff with transparency.”
The arguments for and against releasing the recordings went about as you would expect.
Mike Tadych, the attorney representing the Winston-Salem Journal and other news organizations in the case, argued for transparency.
“We all want to know how law enforcement interacts with its citizens,” Tadych said.
Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill and a line of defense attorneys representing five former detention officers and a contract nurse charged in connection with Neville’s death all sang from the same choir sheet by reciting variations of “We want a fair trial; releasing the video will taint the jury pool.”
If any trials are held in Forsyth County, good luck with that — a point made by Mike Grace, who is representing Neville’s family.
“There is harm in not seeing the video,” he said.
In the end, Neville said, his family decided to support the public release of a most private moment to back justice for their father and to ensure rapid, positive change through peaceful means rather than riots or violence.
“The video is powerful,” he said. “I’ve seen it start to finish. It’s something that will never leave me. … This is about justice for the next one.
“What if it’s somebody else?”