RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) — The children of John Neville, the man who died after being restrained by jail officers in Winston-Salem two years ago, made a thoughtful decision to handle that death much more quietly than others involving police custody.

Community reflects on 1-year anniversary of John Neville Jr.’s death
Community reflects on the first anniversary of John Neville Jr.’s death

That’s what Sean Neville, John Neville’s son and executor of his estate, told The News & Observer in Raleigh during a riveting interview about the events around his father’s death.

If you don’t know the story about Neville, here’s a recap: In December 2019 Neville, 56, of Greensboro suffocated while being detailed by five detention officers at the Forsyth County Detention Center.

But that cause of death wasn’t announced until eight months after the family unplugged Neville from life-support systems at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital, on Dec. 4, 2019. The family had no idea what had killed him.

A grand jury in Forsyth County declined to indict those five Forsyth County Sheriff’s deputies, instead charging Michelle Heughins, a contract nurse who formerly worked at the jail and who had attended to Neville. Heughins last month pleaded not guilty to a charge of involuntary manslaughter.

When details were made public, Neville’s death prompted widespread protests in the community, because facts about what had happened emerged as the nation was beginning to understand and respond to the role of law enforcement in the deaths of George Floyd Jr. in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, both of which sparked long and loud protests across the nation.

Taylor was shot and inadvertently killed during a misguided drug raid by Louisville Police in March 2020. Floyd died in police custody in May 2020.

Sean Neville told The News & Observer that it was his decision, as executor of his father’s estate, to keep the death quiet at first. “We just wanted a moment to give everybody a chance to breathe and to grieve and understand what was going on,” he told the N&O.

Sean Neville, son of the late John Neville, attends a hearing on the petition to release the jail surveillance and body camera footage in the death of John Neville on Wednesday, July 29, 2020, in Winston-Salem, N.C. (Winston-Salem Journal/Andrew Dye)

Just after Floyd’s death, the Nevilles saw the video of how their father had died. “We sort of found out about this right as the George Floyd thing happened, and it blew up, so we knew when this came to light, it was going to make some noise,” Sean Neville told The News & Observer.

About that time, Natasha Martin, Neville’s daughter, also spoke out about the case and the video shown to the family in an interview with WGHP. She described how her father, like Floyd, told law enforcement 23 times that he could not breathe. She said he was “in a hog-tied position. … The damage was done in the jail cell.”

She said she supported the footage coming out, because it would show the truth. … Bigger than just our family. Sad that we have to go through this to have to show. … Bottom line, it’s going to come out.

“You can see that he is struggling with his chest. You’ve got this nurse who is supposed to be trained. She’s supposed to check his heart rate. She didn’t do that until way later.”

“They [officers] were making jokes and laughing over our dad. Like while he was in duress. … They said he was having a medical emergency, but they never took him to an infirmary.”

“They checked on each other more than they checked on him. At one point, after they checked on each other, they said, ‘Oh, he’s not doing fine.’ And they started laughing.”

Sean Neville told The News & Observer that when the grand jury chose not to indict the jail deputies, that it was “very hard to hear.” He and the family wanted all six persons involved to be charged equally.

He said that the charges were what the family sought, “making sure that those who were in that video, who did what they did, were held responsible.”

In June a federal judge signed off on a $3 million settlement that calls for the county, the Forsyth County Sheriff’s office and their insurer to pay Neville’s estate.