In the end, no one will be held criminally responsible for the death nearly four years ago of a man who repeatedly exclaimed, “I can’t breathe,” as officers tried unsuccessfully to remove his handcuffs at a North Carolina jail.
Last week, Jim O’Neill, the Forsyth County district attorney, dropped an involuntary manslaughter charge against the last remaining defendant in the case, a nurse who was indicted last year in the death of John Neville, 56.
Mr. Neville, who lived in Greensboro, died on Dec. 4, 2019, at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, three days after he was booked into the Forsyth County Jail in Winston-Salem, N.C., on a charge of assaulting a woman, according to the authorities.
During his first night in custody, after he missed at least two doses from his inhaler, Mr. Neville, who had asthma, experienced a medical emergency that caused him to fall from a top bunk to the concrete floor, his family said in a lawsuit.
According to an autopsy report, officers at the jail restrained Mr. Neville on his stomach for 12 minutes after he fell from the bed and was found with vomit on his clothing and blood around his mouth.
The autopsy found that he had died of a brain injury because of cardiopulmonary arrest that was caused by “positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint.” The report said that Mr. Neville had other “significant conditions,” including “acute altered mental status.”
The on-call nurse at the jail, Michelle Heughins, who worked for a private contractor, and five former officers at the jail were charged in July 2020 with involuntary manslaughter in Mr. Neville’s death. But when the case was presented to a county grand jury in April 2022, the panel declined to indict the officers, opting instead to indict only Ms. Heughins.
Mr. O’Neill, the district attorney, said at the time that he was disappointed in the grand jury’s decision, adding that district attorneys do not participate in the private proceedings.
Mr. Neville’s son, Sean Neville, said at the time that 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,” Ms. Heughins’s employer at the time.
“It is shameful that another Black life has been extinguished at the hands of law enforcement, and yet still there is no accountability and no justice,” the son said in April 2022.
On Friday, Mr. O’Neill said that a lawyer for Mr. Neville’s family had written a letter on behalf of the family “expressing their thanks but sincere wishes” that Ms. Heughins not be prosecuted.
“As a result of this request, the Forsyth County District Attorney’s Office is going to honor the family’s wishes and dismiss the last remaining criminal charge against Ms. Heughins,” Mr. O’Neill said in a statement. “The oath of the district attorney requires that we pursue justice, not vengeance.”
Lawyers for the Neville family did not respond on Thursday to phone calls and emails. Sean Neville declined to comment.
Ms. Heughins was thankful for the district attorney’s decision, her lawyers, Jim Cooney and Claire Rauscher, said in a statement.
“Nurse Heughins did all that she could do to meet her obligations as a nurse in caring for John Neville, and has always maintained her innocence in this matter,” they said. “But while she has always believed in her innocence, Ms. Heughins understands that the Neville family suffered the loss of their father and offers her sympathy to the Neville family.”
The jail officers and the nurse had found Mr. Neville disoriented and confused after he fell from his bunk, Mr. O’Neill said in July 2020.
Mr. Neville was alternately thrashing around and losing consciousness, the autopsy report said, and in between incoherent mumbles said: “Let me go,” “Help me up” and “Mama.”
Jail staff members covered his head with a mask after he tried to bite them and then rolled him onto his stomach to handcuff his wrists, at which point he said, “I can’t breathe,” according to the report.
The officers then strapped him to a chair, the report said, and moved him to another cell, where they lowered him onto a mattress, face down on his stomach.
The officers removed his ankle restraints and folded his legs behind his back, and he pleaded: “Please,” “I can’t breathe,” “Help me” and “Let me go,” the report said.
Officers, however, could not remove his handcuffs after one key broke in the keyhole, another key wouldn’t work and a set of bolt cutters malfunctioned, according to the report.
Officers used another set of bolt cutters to remove Mr. Neville’s left handcuff after he had been on his stomach for about 12 minutes, the report said. Ms. Heughins checked him, and the officers left his cell, with Mr. Neville still on his stomach, according to the report.
After Ms. Heughins didn’t see him breathing or moving, the staff members went back into the cell, rolled Mr. Neville onto his back and started CPR, the report said.
In August 2020, one day before officials released videos of the officers restraining Mr. Neville, the Forsyth County sheriff, Bobby F. Kimbrough Jr., apologized to Mr. Neville’s family. Mr. Kimbrough said he cried after watching a video of the encounter and said that “mistakes were made that day.” The sheriff’s office said at the time that it had fired all five of the officers.
In June 2022, a federal judge approved a $3 million settlement in a wrongful-death lawsuit that Sean Neville, as the administrator of his father’s estate, had filed against Sheriff Kimbrough and other sheriff’s department officers.
In his statement announcing that he was dismissing the charge against Ms. Heughins, Mr. O’Neill said that Mr. Neville’s family had “begun the difficult process of trying to achieve closure in the loss of their father as it relates to the criminal justice system.”
“The totality of the circumstances has dictated the resolution of this case,” Mr. O’Neill said, “especially the wishes of those closest to this case: the family of John Neville.”