The attorney for the family of John Neville says his clients haven’t received fair treatment since five detention officers and a nurse were charged in Neville’s jail-related death.
“My concern is that the Neville family, in my opinion, has not been treated well by those folks who represent the sheriff and the county,” said Michael Grace of Winston-Salem, the attorney for Neville’s estate. “They deserve a little better based on how they comported themselves throughout this whole thing.”
His law firm is Grace, Tisdale & Clifton P.A. of Winston-Salem.
John Elliott Neville, 56, died on Dec. 4, 2019, at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.
“No one from the family or its legal counsel use that (Neville’s death) to foment unrest among the citizens,” Grace said. “Neville’s death was an egregious as any death we’ve seen lately. The family comported themselves with dignity.”
The events leading to Neville’s death started on Dec. 1, 2019, when Kernersville police officers arrested Neville on an outstanding warrant for arrest for assault on a female. Neville was taken to the Forsyth County Jail.
Twenty-four hours later, Neville suffered some kind of medical issue while he was asleep and fell from the top bunk to the floor of his cell.
Video released in August 2020 showed detention officers and a nurse surrounding Neville. The officers restrained him and placed a spit mask over his face while Neville cried out for his mother and said, “I can’t breathe,” for the first time. Detention officers took him to another cell, placed him on a mattress face down and piled on top of him in an effort to remove his handcuffs.
Over a three-minute period, Neville said “I can’t breathe” at least 28 times. He was later taken to Wake Forest Baptist, where he died.
Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough of Forsyth County did not acknowledge publicly Neville’s death for six months until the Winston-Salem Journal asked him about it.
The sheriff’s office released a statement Wednesday about the case.
“Even before the death of John Neville became public, Sheriff Kimbrough engaged in dialogue with and offered support to the Neville children,” the statement said. “We honored their requests and decisions as we were legally able.”
On July 8, 2020, District Attorney Jim O’Neill of Forsyth County announced that five detention officers and one nurse would be charged with involuntary manslaughter — Lt. Lavette Maria Williams, 48; Cpl. Edward Joseph Roussel, 51; Officer Christopher Bryan Stamper, 42; Officer Antonio Maurice Woodley Jr., 26; Officer Sarah Elizabeth Poole, 36; and Michelle Heughins, 45, a nurse for Wellpath, a Nashville, Tenn.-based company that was the medical provider at the jail.
The cases are pending in Forsyth District Court.
Judy Lilley, a spokeswoman for Wellpath, declined to comment on the case.
Neville’s death sparked days of protests and arrests and a 49-day occupation, led by the Triad Abolition Project, at Bailey Park. The occupation ended after Kimbrough announced he would ban the bent-leg prone restraint that led to Neville’s death.
Grace acknowledged that the local protests were peaceful.
The Winston-Salem Journal is part of a media coalition that is pushing for the release of records in the custody of the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh. Judge David Hall of Forsyth Superior Court ruled that the records, which includes an investigative report from the State Bureau of Investigation, became public when they were given by law-enforcement agencies to the medical examiner’s Office.
But Hall stayed that decision while the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office seeks an appeal in the N.C. Court of Appeals. The N.C. Court of Appeals has issued a stay in the case as well.
Attorneys for the media coalition have filed a lawsuit against the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the state medical examiner’s office. That lawsuit is pending.
Grace said he wants Neville’s family to be fairly treated and compensated for Neville’s death.
Travelers Insurance Co. of Hartford, Conn., provides liability coverage for the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, a county employee said.
“We had hoped that the insurance company would sit down and negotiate a settlement, but that hasn’t happened,” Grace said.
Neither Grace nor his law partner, Chris Clifton, will sue the Forsyth County Sheriff’s Office, Grace said.
“Sheriff Kimbrough’s office is a friend to this office (Grace’s law firm),” Grace said. “This firm is a friend of his office.”
The law firm, Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP of Winston-Salem, is representing the Neville family, Grace said. No lawsuit has been filed.
“As it relates to compensation, I have no control or legal standing to make a determination,” Kimbrough said in his statement. “My prayers and condolences have been and will always be with the Neville family. In due time, may God grant them peace.”