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Lawsuit: Officer, nurse ignored signs inmate was in medical distress. John Neville died after being restrained at Forsyth jail.
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Lawsuit: Officer, nurse ignored signs inmate was in medical distress. John Neville died after being restrained at Forsyth jail.

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A federal lawsuit filed Sept. 28 alleges that detention officers at Forsyth County’s jail not only pinned John Neville in a prone position that ultimately led to his death but also that he was denied use of an inhaler for his asthma and that officials ignored repeated signs that he was in medical distress.

According to the lawsuit, despite Neville having displayed clear signs of a medical emergency, detention and medical officials at the jail failed to take Neville to the hospital for more than an hour. The lawsuit says that a sheriff’s deputy gave a written note to EMS after Neville arrived at the hospital, asking to be informed in the event of Neville’s death and whether an autopsy would be performed.

John Elliott Neville, 56, of Greensboro, died on Dec. 4, 2019 at what is now known as Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem. Five former detention officers — Lavette Maria Williams, Edward Joseph Roussel, Sarah Elizabeth Poole, Christopher Bryan Stamper and Antonio Maurice Woodley — and nurse Michelle Heughins have all been charged with involuntary manslaughter. No trial date has been set.

On Sept. 28, Sean Neville, John Neville’s son and the executor of his father’s estate, filed a 74-page lawsuit in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of North Carolina, which includes Forsyth County. The detention officers and the nurse are named as defendants. The lawsuit also names Wellpath LLC, the jail’s medical provider at the time of Neville’s death, Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. and Forsyth County.

The lawsuit makes 12 separate claims, including violations of federal civil rights laws and wrongful death. It asks for compensatory damages totaling at least $300,000 and for an unknown amount in punitive damages.

The public did not find out about Neville’s death for six months, when Kimbrough acknowledged it on June 26, 2020, prompted by questions from the Winston-Salem Journal. Local protests sparked by the Minneapolis death of George Floyd a month earlier soon turned toward demanding accountability for Neville’s death in Winston-Salem.

The Triad Abolition Project led a 49-day demonstration in Bailey Park.

Demonstrators demanded that videos of Neville’s time in custody be released, that the jail change its medical provider and that law enforcement ban the use of the prone position in which Neville was restrained.

The Winston-Salem Journal joined with other media organizations to petition for the release of body camera and jail surveillance footage of the events that led to Neville’s death. A Forsyth County judge ordered the release of the videos, which showed Neville said the words “I can’t breathe” dozens of times as he was restrained, face down, in the jail.

Just days before his death, Kernersville police arrested Neville on an outstanding warrant alleging misdemeanor assault on a female in Greensboro. He was taken to the Forsyth County Jail and, according to the lawsuit, he told jail officials he had asthma. Wellpath officials prescribed Neville an inhaler that he was to receive four times a day.

He missed two doses, and at 3:26 a.m. Dec. 2, 2019, his cellmate saw that Neville had fallen from the top bunk. He pressed a button in the cell to summon help. Heughins and detention officers came in, finding Neville on the ground, sweating, with blood on his mouth in what appeared to be a seizure-like state.

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