On July 23, 2015, Michael Sabbie—a 35-year-old Black father of four from Texarkana, Arkansas—was found dead in a cell at the privately-operated Bi-State Justice Center. Yesterday (October 5), The Huffington Post published video that shows what happened immediately before his death.
The video shows that corrections officers knocked him to the ground, sprayed him with pepper spray and dragged him to a cell, all while he told them that he could not breathe. Meanwhile, the medical examiner ruled his death “natural.”
But reports show that beginning on July 20, Sabbie repeatedly asked for help, saying he was having trouble breathing and that he thought he had pneumonia. He said, “I can’t breathe”—the same phrase Eric Garner repeated when he was choked by a New York Police Department officer—19 times on the video. He was reportedly found dead about 14 hours after he was sprayed.
“If you just looked at the cause of death, you would think that Michael died of some sort of hypertensive heart condition, and that may be true,” Erik J. Heipt, one of the Sabbie family’s lawyers told The Huffington Post. “But if we didn’t have a video, we’d never know that he had been begging for help due to his shortness of breath and inability to breathe. We’d never know that he said ‘I can’t breathe’ 19 times in the nine minutes that we hear in that video.”
The Huffington Post reports that Sabbie saw a nurse at the jail on July 20 who treated him for low blood oxygen level and told him not to lie down. After being found on the floor of his cell the next morning, he went back to the nurse, but she sent him back to his cell. Later that day, he appeared in court, where he pleaded not guilty to a misdemeanor charge of “third-degree assault on a household or family member” that arose out of an argument with his wife in which he allegedly verbally threatened her. The bailiff said Sabbie was “sweating very heavily and coughing” and the judge thought he might have bronchitis or asthma. Sabbie said he was coughing up blood and asked to go to the hospital; instead, he was taken back to the jail.
Per The Huffington Post:
This is where the video kicks in, and we see that Sabbie stopped to lean against a wall.
Officer Clint Brown walked over to Sabbie. Brown claimed Sabbie wanted to use the phone in the booking desk, but Brown said he had to go back to his cell. He claimed Sabbie turned aggressively toward him, so he grabbed him. Other officers soon assisted.
Lt. Nathaniel Johnson, who earlier in the day had taken Sabbie to the nurse because he had difficulty breathing, pepper-sprayed Sabbie directly in the face, just as he said, “I can’t breathe.”
Venable, the nurse who saw Sabbie earlier in the morning and had been on duty since 5 a.m., witnessed the guards use force against Sabbie, and then evaluated him briefly in her office. She didn’t fill out a form, but said she believed his complaints were a normal reaction to pepper spray.
“Ms. Venable said she wanted to get off work on time because she had to get her daughter to a pitching lesson,” one police report states. “She said she was going to complete one this morning when she came into work but learned that Mr. Sabbie had passed away.” …
Correctional Officer Simone Nash was charged with keeping an eye on Sabbie overnight. She was required to do cell safety checks on all her pods and cells every 30 minutes, as well as a count four times each shift. Although her records indicated that the guard did those 30-minute checks, she admitted that “not all the checks were done and they were only documented,” according to a Texarkana Police report. Nash admitted she “didn’t consistently enter and check the cells inside the pods during every one of the 30 minute checks” as required, according to the report. During her counts, she said that while Sabbie never responded to her during the counts, she claims she saw him breathing.
Sabbie’s wife, Theresa issued a statement about her husband. “I can’t put into words how devastated my children and I are after the loss of Michael,” she said of the stay at home dad. “He was my backbone and best friend. My children lost a wonderful father who wanted the best for his family. A piece of our heart is gone, and I pray to God for justice. This was a tragedy that should never have happened.”
The U.S. Department of Justice investigated the case, but declined to prosecute, saying that there was no evidence that Sabbie’s civil rights were violated.