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Tennessee officer told restrained man 'you shouldn't be able to breathe' before he died

Jail Death.jpg
Posted at 9:20 AM, May 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-21 19:49:01-04

LEWISBURG, Tenn. — A man who was restrained by law enforcement in Tennessee repeatedly said he couldn't breathe, but the deputies and police officers he struggled with taunted him until he died.

An exclusive WTVF investigation is raising questions about the death of William Jennette last May inside the Marshall County Jail in Lewisburg.

His daughter has filed a lawsuit against the county, the City of Lewisburg and several officers for the "beating, suffocation and resultant death" of William Jennette.

Video obtained by WTVF shows three Marshall County jailers called for police back-up on May 6 of last year after William Jennette refused to get into a restraint chair.

When Lewisburg Police Officer Christopher Stallings ran into the room, William Jennette yelled that corrections officers were trying to kill him.

Officers wrestled William Jennette to the floor where he died minutes later.

"That just breaks my heart because he was someone worth knowing," said his daughter, Dominique Jennette.

The daughter said her 48-year-old father was terrified and desperately needed help.

"That's just something that really sticks with me, how scared he must have been and how alone he must have felt," Jennette said.

Jail logs show William Jennette had been "hallucinating" and "detoxing" after being arrested two days earlier for resisting arrest, public intoxication and indecent exposure.

Unedited body cam video:

Officers had put him in a restraint chair the day before for his own protection because he was hitting his head on the cell wall.

Then, on May 6, officers tried again, and jail cameras show things escalated quickly.

"They should have been more aware. They should have been trained properly, and they weren't," Dominique Jennette said.

Much of her lawsuit focuses on what happened after officers wrestled her father to the ground.

William Jennette screamed for officers to get off his back. He was face down on the floor in handcuffs continuing to struggle.

"Go get leg restraints before you do anything else, go get leg restraints," an officer said as officers were on William Jennette's back.

Seconds later, William Jennette said for the first time he could not breathe.

But a female officer was not sympathetic.

"You shouldn't be able to breathe, you stupid b*****d," she exclaimed.

Officers stayed on William Jennette's back and even bent his legs to his back until finally one officer said to be careful of suffocating him.

"Easy, easy -- remember asphyxiation, guys."

Another officer responded, "That's why I'm not on his lungs, to let him breathe."

William Jennette's last words were: "I'm good."

But an officer with his knee on William Jennette's back talked back to him.

"No, you ain't good. You're going to lay right there for a f*****g minute," the officer said.

We showed the video to law professor and former police officer Seth Stoughton. He's co-written a book, "Evaluating Police Uses of Force."

"That's the exact opposite of what generally accepted training has taught officers for the last 25 years," Stoughton said.

"When the handcuffs came on, they should have rotated the guy to his side."

He was disturbed by what he saw in the video.

Stoughton said police officers have been trained since the mid-1990s about the dangers of positional asphyxiation, suffocating someone by putting pressure on their back while they are in what's called the prone position.

"There's approximately a three-minute, 43-second period after officers have applied handcuffs where they keep the individual in the prone position, and that's not acceptable," Stoughton said.

William Jennette's daughters remember their dad as a father of five, who drove a cement truck to support them.

He had been arrested before but did not have a long rap sheet.

"All he wanted was help, and all he got was hate. It's not right," said daughter Calli Jennette.

Dominique Jennette added, "There were so many who could have said this wasn't right, and no one said this wasn't right,"

The autopsy listed the cause of death as "acute combined drug intoxication" with methamphetamine in his system.

But it also listed "asphyxia" as a "contributory cause of death" and ruled it a homicide.

"It just feels like my heart is constantly being ripped out of my chest, and there's no peace to that," Dominique Jennette said.

The family hopes other departments learn from what happened to their dad.

"I want to go home, and I can't go home because he's not there to take me home anymore," Calli Jennette said.

A grand jury looked at this case but decided not to bring criminal charges against the officers.

The sheriff and the attorney for the county in this case did comment on what happened.

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Video from Marshall County Jail

This story was originally published by Ben Hall at WTVF.