Tennessee cops mocked dying man's plea: 'I can't breathe'

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Officers holding William Jennette, 6 May 2020Image source, Marshall County Jail/WTVF
Image caption,
The footage emerged as part of a civil rights case filed against the officers

A US jail inmate died gasping for breath minutes after police officers held him face down, with one taunting: "You shouldn't be able to breathe."

New footage from the Tennessee facility shows how William Jennette, 48, was pinned down and tied a year ago.

"Help me," he pleaded with other staff at Marshall County Jail in Lewisburg, "they're going to kill me."

Asphyxia was listed as "a contributory cause of death" due to officers' use of the prone restraint.

Mr Jennette's official post-mortem examination was ruled a homicide, with "acute combined drug intoxication" also listed by the medical examiner as a cause of death.

The prone restraint was most recently under scrutiny in the police murder of George Floyd, a black man in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last year, 19 days after the death of Mr Jennette.

The daughter of Mr Jennette, who was white, has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit over law enforcement practices in the father-of-five's death on 6 May 2020.

In their lawsuit, which names seven officers as defendants, the Jennette family alleges excessive force was used at the jailhouse, located 70 miles (110km) south of Nashville.

"All he wanted was help and all he got was hate," his daughter Cali Jennette told local CBS affiliate WTVF-TV.

Mr Jennette was pinned down with an officer's weight on his back for a total of four minutes, according to the lawsuit.

Officials have defended their handling of the incident, saying Mr Jennette was "extremely unruly".

Image source, Marshall County Jail/WTVF
Image caption,
Police say the inmate became "unruly"

State prosecutors closed an inquiry into the death several months ago. A grand jury reviewed the case, but decided not to bring criminal charges against the officers.

Mr Jennette, a cement truck driver, had been arrested on charges of public intoxication, indecent exposure and resisting arrest. Methamphetamine was detected in his body and jail logs say he had been "hallucinating" and "detoxing".

The day before his death, Mr Jennette had repeatedly banged his head into the cell wall, say officials, prompting officers to place him in a restraint chair.

On the day of his death, officials say he began to bang his fists on the door, and when officers tried to get him into a restraint chair again he refused to comply.

Mr Jennette is heard on video, pleading: "Help me, they're going to kill me." During the ensuing struggle, Marshall County deputies handcuffed Mr Jennette and wrestled him to the ground.

Officers placed their weight on his back, staying on him even as he warned three times that he could not breathe.

One deputy replied: "You shouldn't be able to breathe, you stupid little [expletive]."

According to the lawsuit, she then mocked Mr Jennette by saying: "I can't breathe." Another officer allegedly laughed.

At one point in the footage an officer reminds his colleagues of the dangers of "positional asphyxiation", and urges them to let Mr Jennette breathe.

The legal action alleges that by the time Mr Jennette was turned over, his body was "purple and lifeless".

Law enforcement use-of-force expert Seth Stoughton, who testified at the George Floyd trial, told CBS News that the way officers treated Mr Jennette was "the exact opposite of what generally accepted training has taught officers for the last 25 years".

"When the handcuffs came on, they should have rotated the guy to his side," he said.

In a statement, Lewisburg Mayor Jim Bingham called the death "unfortunate", but said Mr Jennette had been "both verbally and physically abusive" towards his jailers.

Mr Bingham did not comment on the litigation, which also names the city and county.