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News & Record, other media, sue to make records public in death of John Neville of Greensboro

News & Record, other media, sue to make records public in death of John Neville of Greensboro

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Video captured the events at the Forsyth County jail before John Neville was hospitalized and died.

A coalition of media outlets, including the News & Record, filed a lawsuit Monday for public records in the death of North Carolina inmate John Neville, a Black man who suffocated and died after deputies restrained him in a controversial hold for more than 11 minutes.

The lawsuit comes as the death of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City puts a national spotlight on police accountability and transparency in North Carolina, because the state does not let the public see body-camera footage without a court order, which isn’t always granted.

Neville, a 56-year-old Greensboro man died on Dec. 4, 2019, after being held in the Forsyth County Detention Center on his stomach with his hands cuffed behind his back and his legs bent toward his wrists.

An autopsy report said Neville died from positional and compressional asphyxiation that caused a heart attack and brain injury.

Four deputies and a nurse are charged in his death.

Documents kept secret

The sheriff’s office, the Forsyth County District Attorney’s office and the State Bureau of Investigation kept Neville’s death a secret from the public.

Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. did not publicly acknowledge Neville’s death for seven months, until June 26, prompted by questions from the Winston-Salem Journal. He said later that Neville’s family had asked that no information be released about their father’s death.

The current fight focuses on documents the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ has that helped the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determine how Neville died. They include the entirety of an internal police investigation and the SBI report into his death.

Under North Carolina law, SBI reports are not public record. However, once that report was handed over to NCDHHS it became public.

Those are the same records that lawmakers tried to keep secret when passing Senate Bill 168 last summer. The records remained public after public outcry led to a veto from Gov. Roy Cooper.

When Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neill’s prosecutors learned NCDHHS was going to release the reports in response to three public records requests, his office filed an emergency petition to have them sealed. The newspaper was not notified of his petition until after Forsyth County Superior Court Judge David Hall granted the seal.

The coalition’s attorney, Mike Tadych, fought the seal the following week, and Hall agreed that the records were public and unsealed them. But before NCDHHS released them, O’Neill notified the court that he would appeal and asked for them to be sealed again.

Hall agreed to keep the records sealed for 60 days, but he recognized that since O’Neill’s office had left both the media and NCDHHS out of his emergency petition, neither could be heard in the appellate court.

Tadych agreed the media would sue NCDHHS and the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to become a party. That happened Monday.

The Winston-Salem Journal contributed to this reporting.

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