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North Carolina grand jury indicts nurse but not corrections officers in death of jailed Black man

<i>Forsyth County Sheriff's Office</i><br/>John Elliot Neville
Forsyth County Sheriff's Office
John Elliot Neville

By Hannah Sarisohn and Claire Colbert, CNN

A North Carolina grand jury indicted a former detention center nurse this week on a charge of involuntary manslaughter for her role in the 2019 death of a Black man in custody, according to the indictment obtained by CNN, but spared the corrections officers who restrained the man.

According to previous reporting by CNN, John Elliot Neville, 56, of Greensboro, experienced an “unknown” medical emergency while in custody at the Forsyth County Law Enforcement Center, causing him to fall off his top bunk. CNN reported five corrections officers found him disoriented and confused and decided to move him to an observation cell, where authorities say he sustained injuries.

Body camera footage of the incident showed Neville yelling for help and resisting the officers who were trying to restrain him. Neville can be heard telling officers, “I can’t breathe” and calling out, “Mama!” during the episode, which occurred a day after his arrest on December 1.

Michelle Heughins, the nurse, checked Neville’s blood pressure as he continued to struggle and yell for help.

The initial investigation report from the Forsyth County Medical Examiner said Neville became unresponsive at some point while officers were attempting to remove the handcuffs restraining him, CNN previously reported. CPR was started by medical personnel, and EMS was called.

Upon EMS arrival, Neville’s pupils were dilated and nonreactive, the report states. He was taken to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, where he died December 4, 2019.

According to the medical examiner’s report, Neville’s cause of death is listed as “complications of hypoxic ischemic brain injury due to cardiopulmonary arrest due to positional and compressional asphyxia during prone restraint.” Other significant conditions were listed as “acute altered mental status” and “asthma.”

In the summer of 2020, Forsyth County District Attorney Jim O’Neil charged Heughins and all five of the corrections officers who attended to Neville leading up to his death with involuntary manslaughter, according to CNN’s previous reporting. But on Monday, the grand jury indicted Heughins, and declined to indict the five correctional officers, the nurse’s attorney told CNN.

O’Neil confirmed to CNN via text Heughins was indicted, and the correctional officers were not.

Grand jury meetings are secret and what was presented to the jurors that led to nurse being indicted and not the officers has not been disclosed to the public.

Heughins’ attorney Claire Rauscher told CNN the indictment was “obviously surprising,” adding, “Our client never restrained him, never held him down.”

“Only time [Heughins] ever touched or assisted [Neville] was to take his vitals and perform CPR,” Rauscher said.

Rauscher said Heughins had no authority to tell the corrections officers what to do. She said Heughins is the “only one who tried to save [Neville].”

Neville’s family released a statement to CNN affiliate WXII following the indictment saying while they “appreciate” the effort of O’Neil and his office in convening a grand jury, “it is 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 Care.”

“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. We will continue to fight for what is right and just,” Neville’s family said in the statement.

According to court documents obtained by CNN, Heughins will appear in court for her arraignment on May 2.

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