Media coalition attorney Mike Tadych talks with reporters following Wednesday's court hearing on the release of jail video footage related to the December 2019 death of John Neville, in which several jail personnel have been charged. Jordan Wilkie / Carolina Public Press

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A Forsyth County judge has ordered the partial release of video footage showing fatal injuries to a man held at the county jail in Winston-Salem last year.

John Neville died Dec. 4 from injuries he suffered while detained at Forsyth County jail two days prior. The infliction of those injuries, for which members of the jail staff have been charged, was caught “by a combination of body-worn cameras, at least one handheld video camera and fixed dormitory cameras,” according to Superior Court Judge Greg Horne

On Friday, Horne ordered that two of those videos be released in response to a petition from a coalition of news organizations, including Carolina Public Press. 

The footage will be provided to the 11 participating news outlets on Wednesday. The News & Observer originally filed a petition to release those videos on June 17. Ten other media outlets, including CPP, joined that petition on July 23. 

Horne ordered the release in favor of a compelling public interest in the case, which outweighed concerns from Forsyth District Attorney Jim O’Neill and defense attorneys for the jail staff involved in the case, made during a court hearing on Wednesday.

“This public interest is only furthered by the fact that the death was not publicly reported for at least six months after it occurred,” Horne wrote in his order. 

That silence was, in part, at the request of Neville’s family, who initially asked that the videos not be released and that the county sheriff not make a public announcement about his death. 

Now, the family is joining the news media outlets in support of releasing the videos. Sheriff Bobby F. Kimbrough Jr., following the family’s wishes, has also called for the video to be released.

“These alleged actions, occurring while Mr. Neville was in custody, relate to a matter of significant local, state and national public interest, and the release of the recording is necessary to advance a compelling public interest,” Judge Horne wrote in his order. 

In court documents and during a court hearing at Forsyth County Courthouse on Wednesday, all parties in the case put Neville’s death in the context of national protests against police violence in recent months. 

Michael Tadych, representing the media coalition, argued that the national interest in law enforcement accountability called for public release of the videos. 

“Today is a big day in the continuing conversation about increasing transparency of law enforcement’s interaction with all members of the public,” Tadych said in a statement after Horne ordered the videos to be released. 

“Nearly nine months ago, John Elliott Neville died from injuries suffered while in custody in the Forsyth County Jail. Eight months after his passing, six workers at the jail were charged with causing the injuries that led to Mr. Neville’s death only a short time after his death was made public.” 

On July 8, O’Neill announced he would charge the five sheriff’s deputies and one jail nurse seen in the videos with involuntary manslaughter. The nurse worked for Wellpath, a private contractor that provides medical services in jails and prisons. 

O’Neill, along with the defense attorneys for each of the six jail staff, argued that the videos should not be released. They argued that if the videos garnered the same kind of attention as those of the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, the staff’s right to a fair trial could be harmed. 

In the end, that argument did not sway Horne. 

“Release of the recordings would not create a serious threat to the fair, impartial and orderly administration of justice,” Horne wrote in the order. 

Trial courts have a broad array of tools to “ensure a fair and impartial jury panel,” Horne wrote. 

Several members of Neville’s family have seen the video. In court on Wednesday, the family’s lawyer, Mike Grace, said Neville told officers he could not breathe 24 times. 

According to reports by The News & Observer, sheriff’s deputies told Neville that if he could speak, he could breathe. They made jokes at Neville’s expense. When Neville was removed from the jail, other detainees can be heard singing “Amazing Grace” and shouting that Neville had been killed. 

Horne ordered the release of two videos, totaling 45 minutes and 35 seconds. The remaining video caught by other cameras showed the same sequence of events from different angles, Horne wrote, and will not be released. 

Some portions of the videos will be redacted, such as when Neville is receiving emergency medical care, as it is of a “highly sensitive personal nature.” 

Despite the State Bureau of Investigation completing a report on Neville’s death and O’Neill’s decision to charge the jail staff with involuntary manslaughter, the public still does not know what happened in the jail. 

“Hopefully, the recordings to be released next week will begin to answer that and many other questions,” Tadych said.

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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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