Sean Neville talks with the press following Wednesday's Forsyth County court hearing on the release of jail video footage documenting injuries his father, John Neville, received prior to his death. Sean favors release of the footage to members of the news media, but the district attorney is opposed. The video will be evidence in the manslaughter trial of deputies involved in the case. Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press

Before he died, John Neville told five sheriff’s deputies and one jail nurse that he could not breathe, according to Mike Grace, his family’s attorney.

He told them 24 times, Grace says. The attorney says he knows this because he watched jail video footage at the center of this case. 

Neville died at the hospital on Dec. 4, 2019, two days after suffering his injuries at the Forsyth County jail. Forsyth District Attorney Jim O’Neill announced that he was charging the deputies and nurse with involuntary manslaughter on July 8. 

But the public, which has not seen that footage, still does not know what happened. 

A coalition of 11 news outlets including Carolina Public Press has filed a petition for the release of the footage. The News & Observer was the original petitioner. CPP joined the suit on July 23.

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Superior Court Judge Greg Horne heard arguments Wednesday at the Forsyth County Courthouse about whether the video footage should be released. 

Arguing for the petitioners, media attorney Michael Tadych told the court that the release of the video would advance a compelling public interest and that the media in this case stood in for the public at large.

O’Neill argued that the video should not be released, as it could affect the administration of a fair trial for the six defendants in the case. Attorneys for each of the defendants also asked the court not to release the video, saying they feared the video could influence a jury.

However, Grace, on behalf of the Neville family, sided with the petitioners and asked the judge to release the footage.

Both Grace and O’Neill referenced unfounded rumors among protesters of a cover-up and of bad-faith actions by the county sheriff. The sheriff has stood with the family, Grace said, and his actions have been in line with the family’s requests.

The rumors and current press coverage were already affecting potential jurors, he said, and releasing the video is the best thing the court could do to stop the rumors and show people what really happened, according to Grace.

“The greatest ammunition for a cover-up will be if this court does not release the video,” Grace said. 

Judge Horne said he would issue his decision on Friday. 

Son: ‘His death matters’

Local news outlets have intensely covered Neville’s killing. Two national outlets, The Associated Press and The New York Times, have also written about the case and joined as petitioners asking for the release of the video footage. 

The coverage has fueled local protests over conditions at the jail and brought Neville’s death into the national conversation about law enforcement violence and lack of transparency. 

“We appreciate that his death matters because most people don’t get that luxury,” said Sean Neville, John Neville’s son, to the press after the hearing. 

Supporters of Neville’s family believe his name should be added to the list of people killed by law enforcement. Such cases are often only known because of constant pressure from activists and the news media’s push for transparency.

Carolina Public Press joined the petitioners for the release of the Forsyth County jail video footage out of a desire for increased transparency from jail systems across the state. 

“Our news organization believes that jail videos and audio recordings are critical to shining a light on the workings of public agencies in charge of jail operations and conditions,” Angie Newsome, CPP’s founder and executive director, said Wednesday.

Arguments for and against releasing the footage

The petition to release the video footage is based on state law, which says the decision is entirely in the judge’s discretion. The release of the footage can only happen through court order. 

In making his decision, the judge has eight standards to consider, as laid out in the law

Most importantly, as argued in court, are whether the video would “advance a compelling public interest” and whether it would “create a serious threat to the fair, impartial and orderly administration of justice.”

O’Neill, who will be prosecuting the cases of involuntary manslaughter, argued the supposed public interest in releasing the video is outweighed by the risk of jeopardizing the trial.

“The court has to decide what’s more important, the morbid curiosity of the media or the right to a fair trial,” O’Neill told the court.

Though O’Neill and the others arguing against the petition did not claim no compelling public interest in releasing the video exists, they said the footage would be released anyway during the trial, at least in parts. The public, they said, could wait, in the interest of the constitutional right to a fair trial for the six defendants.

In contrast, Tadych argued for the release of the footage to media outlets, saying the public has a compelling interest in knowing what happened to Neville while he was at the jail. 

Tadych also described the authority trial court judges have to choose a jury and control the trial, which could mitigate the fears O’Neill and the defense attorneys had about a tainted jury pool. 

“Yes, a right to a fair trial is a constitutional right, but that does not mean you use the most draconian measure,” Tadych said after the hearing. “You use the least restrictive means.”

In court, Tadych described how the video footage was important in a series of decisions made by the state.

The medical examiner used the footage to write the narrative report of Neville’s death. Forsyth County Sheriff Bobby Kimbrough Jr. used the video to refer the case to the State Bureau of Investigation. O’Neill used the video in the decision to charge the sheriff’s deputies and nurse with involuntary manslaughter.

The video is key to understanding what happened to Neville, and the public also has a right to know, Tadych said.

Jordan Wilkie

Jordan Wilkie is a Report for America corps member and is the lead contributing reporter covering election integrity, open government, and civil liberties for Carolina Public Press. Email jwilkie@carolinapublicpress.org to contact him.

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