Suit: Jail inmate asphyxiated while officers restrained him


The daughter of a man who died in a Tennessee jail last year claims in a federal lawsuit that he 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.”

On Thursday, Nashville television station WTVF-TV posted video of the moments leading up to the death of William Jennette. The Associated Press has filed public records requests for the video on Friday, but Marshall County and the city of Lewisburg did not immediately respond to the requests.

The video shows a group of officers, both Black and white, holding down Jennette, who was white, in a prone position as he struggles. He is handcuffed first, then his legs are restrained in cuffs. Then officers then fold his legs up and pin them to his buttocks. Jennette says he can’t breathe, and an officer identified in the complaint as Marshall County Sheriff’s Deputy Kendra Burton tells him, “You shouldn’t be able to breathe” and calling him by an expletive.

Dominique Jennette sued the two municipalities and seven officers in October, claiming the officers violated her father’s constitutional rights because they used excessive force and failed to protect him.

In court filings, the officers deny that they acted improperly. A response from Marshall County says officers “did not use force other than was necessary to gain control as he fought, bit, kicked, and struggled against being detained.” The officers, in separate filings, claim immunity from prosecution. They also say they acted in self defense and in defense of their fellow officers. Attorneys for Marshall County and Lewsiburg did not immediately respond to phone messages left for them on Friday afternoon.

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.

An autopsy report lists Jennette’s manner of death as homicide but lists acute combined drug intoxication as the cause of death with asphyxia listed as a contributing cause.

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.

It’s unclear exactly how the physical confrontation began. On video from the jail, Jennette can be seen talking to three officers when one of them suddenly shoves Jennette down the hallway into a wall. Jennette begins to struggle, pushing the officers away and grabbing at them. After about two minutes, another officer arrives and Jennette yells, “Help me! They’re gonna kill me!”

The officers get Jennette on the ground and begin to restrain him. At one point after Jennette says on video that he can’t breathe, someone identified in the complaint as Lewisburg Police Officer Christopher Stallings can be heard telling the others to remember about asphyxiation. “That’s why I’m not on his lungs,” Stallings says. “Let him breathe.”

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.

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