If there were a playbook for corrections officers to avoid accountability for the death of an inmate on their watch, it might look a lot like the case of John Neville, the Greensboro man who died two days after being asphyxiated at the hands of detention officers at the Forsyth County Jail in December 2019.

Remember, Neville was cuffed in a prone position when he told the officers: “I can’t breathe.” A key broke off in the cuffs when they tried to release him according to the autopsy, and then officers broke a pair of bolt-cutters trying to get them off.

The jail did not report his death until six months after it happened, sparking enough outrage to launch a social movement in the city and an activist occupation of Bailey Park that lasted 49 days.

Members of Triad Abolition Project are arrested during their occupation of Bailey Park in 2020.
Activists occupied Bailey Park in Winston-Salem for 49 days to protest the killing of John Neville.

In an unusual turn, Forsyth District Attorney Jim O’Neil actually charged five corrections officers with felony involuntary manslaughter, along with a nurse who seemed to have been the only one to help Neville as he was dying.

That was on July 8, 2020, at the height of the Black Lives Matter movement, barely a month after the death of George Floyd at the hands of police that sparked it all, this time around.

What else could he do?

On Monday, a Forsyth County grand jury declined to indict the officers, which means they will not face trial. They did, however, indict the nurse, whose employer, WellPath, no longer provides healthcare services at the Forsyth County Jail.

Grand jury proceedings are secret, so we can’t know what evidence was – and was not — presented. But we do know that the autopsy described the nurse’s role as a benevolent one, and the cause of death as “asphyxia.” And we’ve seen the video showing the corrections officers piling on top of a restrained Neville as he pled for help.

O’Neill said in a statement that he was “disappointed” by the outcome of the grand jury, which is not a trial but a hearing to determine if a criminal trial should be held at all.

If there were a playbook for this sort of thing, that’s exactly what it would suggest.

But there’s not, right?

There’s another opportunity to seek indictment at the next grand jury convention in a few weeks. At that time, actions will speak louder than words.

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