Published On: Sat, May 22nd, 2021

Death of Tennessee inmate who told officers he couldn’t breathe ruled a homicide

The death of a 48-year-old inmate who died inside a Tennessee jail last year when police officers were holding him face-down was ruled a homicide by the Marshall County Medical Examiner.

The autopsy report lists William Jennette’s cause of death as acute combined drug intoxication, including methamphetamine, with asphyxia listed as a contributing cause.

Jennette’s daughter, Dominique, alleged in a federal lawsuit that her father was asphyxiated while being held on his stomach as one officer answered his cries that he couldn’t breathe with, “You shouldn’t be able to breathe.”

Video of Jennette’s last moments inside the jail was released by Nashville TV news station WTVF-TV on Thursday. It shows a group of officers, both Black and white, holding down Jennette, who was white, in a prone position as he struggles.

Jennette is handcuffed first, then his legs are restrained in cuffs. Officers then fold his legs up and pin them to his buttocks. When Jennette says he can’t breathe, a female officer responds, “You shouldn’t be able to breathe” while calling him by an expletive. The female officer is identified in the complaint as Marshall County Sheriff’s Deputy Kendra Burton.

In October, Dominique Jennette sued Marshall County and the city of Lewisburg as well as seven officers involved in her father’s death. She claims they violated her father’s constitutional rights because they used excessive force and failed to protect him.

The officers deny that they acted improperly, court filings show. The officers also claimed immunity from prosecution in separate filings. They say they acted in self defense and in defense of their fellow officers.

A response from Marshall County after the lawsuit was filed said the officers “did not use force other than was necessary to gain control as he fought, bit, kicked, and struggled against being detained.”

Lewisburg city officials said in a statement this week that “Mr. Jennette’s passing as a result of him being in the Jail is indeed unfortunate. We respect the right of Mr. Jennette’s family to address his loss thru their civil action.”

“We are confident that the judicial system will provide a fair and just outcome for all parties involved in the lawsuit,” the statement said.

Assistant District Attorney William Bottoms said the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation looked into Jennette’s death, and the case was brought before a grand jury, but they declined to indict anyone.

Jennette was arrested on May 4, 2020, for public intoxication, indecent exposure and resisting arrest, according to court records. Officers took him from his cell in the early morning of May 6 after he was pounding on the door, according to court filings. They intended to put him in a restraint chair, the filings said.

In the video, Jennette can be seen talking to three officers when one of them suddenly shoves him down the hallway into a wall. Jennette begins to struggle, pushing the officers away and grabbing at them.

When someone identified in the complaint as Lewisburg police officer Christopher Stallings intervenes, Jennette can be heard yelling, “Help me! They’re gonna kill me!”

The officers get Jennette on the ground and begin to restrain him. At one point after Jennette said he couldn’t breathe, Stallings can be heard in the video telling the other officers to “remember asphyxiation, guys.”

“That’s why I’m not on his lungs. Let him breathe,” Stallings added.

However, officers continue to hold him down. He was held prone for between three and four minutes total, according to the complaint.

Attorneys for Stallings and another officer said in court filings that Jennette was “given a moment to calm down” and that his condition was being monitored. “Mr. Stallings became concerned about Mr. Jennette, investigated, rolled him over, and immediately started life-saving activities,” Stallings’ response to the complaint reads.

Emergency Medical Services arrived and transported Jennette to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

The lawsuit claims the officers should have been trained in the dangers of placing inmates on their stomachs for a prolonged period. “The United States Department of Justice has warned law enforcement for decades about the dangers of prone restraint,” the complaint reads.

Dominique Jennette is seeking damages for pain and suffering as well as punitive damages.

Cristian Santana and The Associated Press contributed.

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