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'It's a crisis in Tennessee.' Many county jails not equipped to deal with unstable inmates

Marshall Co Jail.jpg
Posted at 5:18 PM, May 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-21 19:20:00-04

LEWISBURG, Tenn. (WTVF) — A NewsChannel 5 investigation into the death of a man in the Marshall County jail has received national attention.

William Jennette repeatedly told deputies that he could not breathe, but they kept him pinned down and taunted him.

Jennette was detoxing and hallucinating after being arrested two days earlier.

His death sheds light on how ill-equipped many county jails are to deal with people in a poor mental state. Video from inside the Marshall County jail shows how quickly things escalated last May.

When deputies opened Jennette's cell door, he appeared to say a few words and then the struggle began. Other deputies brought a restraint chair over, but Jennette refused to get in - he would die minutes later.

Attorney and NewsChannel 5 Legal Analyst, Nick Leonardo, said the situation highlights a crisis in Tennessee.

"Many small communities do not have the resources they need to deal with people with mental issues or who are detoxing," Leonardo said.

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

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

But on May 6, he refused to get into the chair and began struggling, so, jailers called for back-up from Lewisburg police.

Officers handcuffed Jennette who continued to struggle then put leg restraints on him. But they kept him on his stomach for nearly four minutes - even as he said he could not breathe.

Experts say officers have been trained since the mid-1990's about the dangers of suffocation by keeping someone on their stomach - in what is called the prone position.

Jennette's daughters were most shocked by some of the things officers said as they held him down.

After the struggle, they mocked him as he begged for breath.

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

An officer responded when Jennette said his last words - "I'm good."

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

Leonardo hopes as part of criminal justice reform the state will invest in training and better facilities for local jails.

It's so bad in Clay County that female inmates have been chained to a chair and given a cot to sleep in a hallway.

The sheriff told us in 2019, the small jail has been overrun with drug-addicted arrestees. He understands people are upset but said there has not been money for new facilities.

"I don't hold it against anyone that feels ill will towards me or the county," Sheriff Brandon Boone said in 2019.

Jennette's family is suing and claimed officers were not trained properly.

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

She said, "It just breaks my heart because he was someone worth knowing."

A grand jury heard this case but did not indict the officers involved.

Leonardo said it is always possible federal charges could be brought in a case like this or it could be brought back to the grand jury. But currently, there are no criminal charges.