The homicide of Gershun Freeman – associated with a physical encounter with corrections officers in the Shelby County Jail four days after he was arrested last October – warrants a U.S. Department of Justice investigation.
So said those who issued a call for that move during a press conference outside the D’Army Bailey Courthouse in Downtown Memphis on Friday afternoon.
Anchoring the call for the federal inquiry was renowned attorney Benjamin Crump, the lead attorney for the family of Tyre D. Nichols. Friday morning and just a few blocks away, Crump had orchestrated another press conference after the arraignment of the five former officers charged with second-degree murder in Nichols’ death.
With members of Freeman’s family alongside, Crump called for Department of Justice (DOJ) intervention in concert with Nichols family co-counsel, Van Turner Jr., president of the Memphis Branch NAACP, and two other local attorneys, Jake Brown and Brice Timmons. Other notables included Just City Executive Director Josh Spickler.
“This isn’t the first allegation of brutality of marginalized people in the county jail,” said Crump, referencing the experiences of those joining in the call for a federal inquiry into Freeman’s death. “Just because you are a detainee in the county jail does not mean that the jailers get to be the judge, the jury and the executioners.”
Freeman’s death was determined to be a homicide during an autopsy that attributed his death to exacerbation of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. The report didn’t affix the homicide to criminal intent with a certainty.
There is video, said Brown, showing that officers used batons, firsts and and a metal object while beating Freeman during an encounter. Freeman, while restrained, went into cardiac arrest and died despite officers rendering CPR.
“It is shocking to think that here in Memphis, where we recently witnessed the abuse on video (where) law enforcement beat an unarmed Black man to death, that inside the jail we might have another instance of law enforcement beating an unarmed Black man to death,” said Crump.
Worse, he said, Freeman was naked.
“It’s hard to say that he had a weapon or that you were in fear of your life when he is naked in a jail. Why do they continue to engage in the most excessive use when it’s Black citizens? We continue to raise this issue over and over again.”
Freeman was arrested in connection with an incident involving a woman he knew. He was accused of an attack on the woman and of subsequently taking her from his home to another location, where she was let go.
The West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center conducted the autopsy, which according to some who have seen it, also indicates that Freeman, 33, had a psychosis history that could have contributed to his death.
“The family is demanding full transparency,” said Crump. “We want to see each part of this video frame by frame by frame. It should be released to the public so everybody can see what happened to Gershun Freeman. …
“We believe once we have transparency we can get the truth, and, most importantly, we can get to justice….”
There is an ongoing investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation (TBI), as well as a review by the office of Shelby County District Atty. Gen. Steve Mulroy. The Sheriff’s office has chosen not to release the video to the public up to now.
In a statement Saturday morning, Sheriff Floyd Bonner Jr. said, “I’ve spoken with the DA and asked him to expedite the investigation and the release of the TBI file. I was supportive of the DA’s decision to show the video to the family and attorneys of Gershun Freeman, and that has been done.”
Bonner said he was committed to “protecting the integrity of an ongoing investigation.”
“At the present time, we are waiting to receive the findings of both the TBI and the district attorney’s office. No other action is planned until they are concluded.”
Timmons said conditions at the jail had regressed since a period of improvement following a consent agreement with the Department of Justice in 2001. Now, he said, it is “one of the most dangerous, violent and constitutionally deficient in the country.”
On August 24, 2000, federal officials notified Shelby County officials of its intent to investigate conditions of confinement at the jail. On October 4-6 and December 11-13, 2000, DOJ officials toured the jail with consultants in penology, correctional health care, environmental health and safety, and mental health care.
On June 27 of the following year, the DOJ concluded that certain conditions in the jail violated detainees’ constitutional rights. The next month, federal attorneys met with county officials to begin negotiations on an agreement to address and remedy concerns.
Among the remedies was implementing “a system of warning flags that alert intake workers of specific indicators in the records of an inmate’s past incarceration” that required “immediate referral to medical staff before classification is completed or the inmate assigned to housing.”
Heart disease was included among the indicators.
The agreement also include a revision of use-of-force policies.
Included among those revisions was the requirement for “all security staff to attend annual in-service training on the use of force and de-escalation techniques.”
(Dr. Sybil C. Mitchell contributed to this story.)