William Jennette begged for help as he sprawled facedown on the floor of a Tennessee jail last May. Half a dozen officers were piled on top of him, pinning his manacled arms, twisting his legs, and kneeling on his back.
“I can’t breathe!” the 48-year-old father of five gasped, in a moment captured on video and shared by WTVF. “I can’t breathe!”
One of the officers yelled back, “You shouldn’t be able to breathe, you stupid b------.”
Minutes later, Jennette was dead. A medical examiner found that he had died of a combination of asphyxiation and the interaction of drugs, including methamphetamine — and ruled his death a homicide.
Despite that finding, WTVF reported, a grand jury declined to charge any of the officers involved. Now Jennette’s daughter is suing in federal court, alleging that videos show officers repeatedly ignoring his warnings that he couldn’t breathe — and even laughing out loud at his pleas for help.
“That’s just something that really sticks with me, of how scared he must have been and how alone he must have felt,” his daughter, Dominique Jennette, told WTVF.
Neither the Lewisburg Police Department nor an attorney representing Marshall County, Tenn., and the seven officers named in the case immediately responded to messages from The Washington Post early on Friday.
Jennette’s case is the latest to raise alarms in the wake of George Floyd’s death about how police use restraints, particularly on suspects suffering from mental health crises or drug-induced episodes.
In Jennette’s case, a handful of nonviolent charges landed him in jail on May 4, 2020, including public intoxication and indecent exposure. In a report reviewed by WTVF, officers in the jail reported that the cement truck driver was “hallucinating” while “detoxing” from drugs. On his second day in the facility, he was placed in a restraint chair after repeatedly hitting his head against a wall.
On May 6, Marshall County deputies again entered his cell because he was banging a door with his “head and fist,” according to an autopsy report. He struggled and was then pepper-sprayed twice, authorities said, and tackled to the ground.
But video published by WTVF appears to show him walking calmly out of his cell before an officer began shoving him down a hallway and slamming him into a wall. As three deputies held him against the wall, one began beating him, his family’s lawsuit alleges.
Soon, they were joined by Lewisburg police officers who were also in the jail. As one ran up, video shows, Jennette yelled, “Help me, they’re going to kill me!”
As they wrenched his arms backward and knelt on him, Jennette pleaded, “Let me up or I’m gonna die,” the lawsuit said. In response, in a moment captured on WTVF’s video, an officer said, “Stay down, you stupid son of a b----.”
Although he was already handcuffed and at least seven officers were on the scene, the police then added leg restraints and folded his legs into a “hogtied” position, according to the suit. As he gasped for air, one officer said, “You little stupid b------ . . . I’m gonna break your . . . foot in a minute.”
In all, the officers used their weight to hold Jennette down in a prone position with his arms and legs bound for around four minutes, the suit said. One officer appeared to recognize the danger, saying in the video, “Easy, easy, remember asphyxiation guys.” But another replied, “That’s why I’m not on his lungs,” as the officers continued holding his limbs and leaning on his back.
As he made a final plea for help, the video shows, Jennette said, “I’m good.”
“No you ain’t good, you’re going to lay right there for a f------ minute,” an officer angrily replied.
Rather than checking on Jennette’s condition, one officer asked another if she was OK, the suit alleges. She mockingly repeated Jennette’s plea — “I can’t breathe!” — while her colleague laughed.
Jennette was unconscious for more than a minute before anyone noticed he wasn’t breathing, the suit said; an officer then began CPR while others called for an ambulance. He was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
An autopsy conducted by the Marshall County Medical Examiner found a number of injuries, including multiple fractured ribs, and declared his cause of death “acute combined drug intoxication,” with asphyxiation as a “contributory cause.”
“The manner of death is consistent with homicide,” wrote Feng Li, a senior associate medical examiner in Marshall County.
That finding, along with the videos, make it clear that the officers unjustly killed Jennette, his daughter argued.
“They should have been more aware,” Dominique Jennette told WTVF. “They should have been trained properly and they weren’t.”