"You shouldn’t be able to breathe": Disturbing video shows fatal police restraint in Tennessee jail
A man who died after being pinned to the floor by law enforcement at a Tennessee jail last year repeatedly told officers he couldn’t breathe, according to video obtained by CBS Nashville station WTVF. But officers continued to restrain the man after he was prone and handcuffed, a federal civil rights lawsuit alleges, and after he pleaded that he couldn’t breathe, a deputy responded: “You shouldn’t be able to breathe, you stupid [expletive.]”
The lawsuit filed by the family of 48-year-old William Jennette says Marshall County deputies and Lewisburg police officers used excessive force against Jennette during the restraint at the Marshall County jail in Lewisburg, Tennessee. The suit alleges that Jennette wasn’t resisting and law enforcement should have been trained about the well-known deadly dangers of asphyxiation associated with prone restraint.
“All he wanted was help and all he got was hate. It’s not right,” Jennette’s daughter, Calli Jennette, told the station.
Lewisburg Mayor Jim Bingham said in a statement that Jennette “became extremely unruly, being both verbally and physically abusive” with deputies assigned to work at the jail. He said the deputies called Lewisburg police officers to respond “due to Mr. Jennette’s aggressive behavior and refusal to comply with commands to stop physically resisting.” The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation probed the death and closed the investigation several months later, he said.
Bingham called Jennette’s death “unfortunate” and said he could not comment further because of the pending lawsuit.
An autopsy cites Jennette’s cause of death as acute combined drug intoxication from methamphetamine and an antihistamine, and lists asphyxiation as a contributing factor. It says Jennette, who was White, was “subdued and restrained by officers during struggle while under the influence,” and lists the manner of death as a homicide. The family lawsuit, however, alleges Jennette died because of beating and suffocation at the hands of the deputies and officers involved, who “caused extreme, almost unfathomable, pain and suffering to Mr. Jennette prior to his death.”
Jail logs obtained by WTVF show Jennette had been “hallucinating” and “detoxing” after being taken into custody two days earlier for public intoxication, indecent exposure and resisting arrest. According to the lawsuit, Jennette began beating his fists against his cell door in the early morning hours of May 6, 2020.
Jailors, who are Marshall County deputies, are seen on the video opening the door to the cell and Jennette is seen exiting peacefully, appearing to be talking to them. One deputy then pushed Jennette back “approximately 15 feet” to the end of a hall, the lawsuit claims. Three deputies press Jennette into a wall where a struggle ensues, the lawsuit says, and one deputy struck the man multiple times.
The video shows deputies apparently trying to get Jennette into a restraint chair. At that point, a Lewisburg police officer arrives, and Jennette pleads with the officer, “Help me, they’re gonna kill me.”
Officers had put the man in a restraint chair the day before for his own protection because he had been hitting his head on the cell wall, the station reports.
The video shows the officer and a deputy wrestling Jennette to the ground and placing him in the prone position as Jennette struggles. In the video, officers are heard yelling for Jennette to give them his arms. One yells, “Bite me again, motherf—-,” but it’s not clear what transpired prior to the comment. The officer places his knee on the man’s back and holds him down with both hands as he, another officer and deputy attempt to handcuff Jennette. Jennette is heard pleading, “[you’re] about to kill me” and “Let me up or I’m going to die,” the lawsuit says.
The officer uses both his hands to press Jennette’s face into the floor, the lawsuit alleges, and yells, “Stay down, you stupid son of a b—–.” He directs another officer to get leg restraints and continues to place his weight on Jennette’s back using his knee and hands, the lawsuit says, “making it impossible for him to breathe.” The officer places Jennette in leg restraints in a “hogtied” position, immobilizing him, but keeps him prone and doesn’t roll him on his side to help him breathe, the suit alleges.
Jennette pleads three times that he can’t breathe, and one deputy responds, “You shouldn’t be able to breathe, you stupid little [expletive.]” She presses the man’s leg up behind his back, according to the lawsuit, and threatens to break Jennette’s foot. Later, when asked by the officer whether she was okay, the deputy mocks Jennette by saying, “I can’t breathe,” and the officer laughs, the suit says.
At one point in the video, the officer cautions, “Easy, remember positional asphyxiation guys. That’s why I’m not on his lungs, let him breathe.”
The officer pinned Jennette with his weight on his back for a total of four minutes, according to the lawsuit, though Jennette was “handcuffed, compliant, restrained and within the physical control” of the officers. Eventually, the officer turned Jennette over, finding him “purple and lifeless,” the suit alleges. The officers then began life-saving measures, but Jennette could not be revived.
Seth Stoughton, a law professor and use-of-force expert, evaluated the video for WTVF and said he was disturbed by what he saw. Officers have been trained since the mid-1990s about the dangers of asphyxiation due to prone restraint, he said.
“That’s the exact opposite of what generally accepted training has taught officers for the last 25 years,” Stoughton said. “When the handcuffs came on, they should have rotated the guy to his side.”
Stoughton testified about the same issues as a use-of-force expert in the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the now-convicted ex-Minneapolis officer who killed George Floyd by pressing his knee to his neck for more than nine minutes.
A grand jury reviewed the Tennessee case but decided not to bring criminal charges against the officers, the station reports. The sheriff and county attorney did not comment to WTVF.
Jennette was a father of five, his family told the station. His daughter Dominique Jennette told WTVF she is haunted by how terrified her father was in his last moments.
“That’s just something that really sticks with me, how scared he must have been and how alone he must have felt,” Jennette said.
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