9 deputies indicted in death of Black inmate who was violently beaten in Memphis jail

Nine Memphis jail deputies have been indicted in the death of a Black man who was having a psychotic episode and died in custody last fall after jailers punched, kicked and kneeled on his back during a confrontation, a sheriff said Wednesday.

Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, who oversees the jail where 33-year-old Gershun Freeman was beaten, disclosed the existence of the indictments during a news conference Wednesday but declined to offer more details, including the names of the county jail deputies and the charges they face.

Lawyers for Freeman’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit against Bonner said the indictments were sealed. They declined to name the jailers and the charges, only saying that they are serious.

Memphis Jail Death
Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner walks away after a news conference about the indictments of nine jail deputies in connection with the death of inmate Gershun Freeman in Memphis, Tennessee. Sept. 20, 2023.ADRIAN SAINZ / AP

Nashville District Attorney Glenn Funk released video in March of Freeman at the Shelby County Jail.

The video shows Freeman was beaten by at least 10 corrections officers Oct. 5 after he ran naked from his cell. His attorneys say he was also struck with handcuffs, rings of jail keys and pepper spray cannisters.

Freeman had “psychosis and cardiovascular disease and died of a heart attack while being restrained,” Bonner said in a March statement, citing a medical examiner’s report.

Freeman’s manner of death is listed as a homicide in the autopsy report from the West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center, although the report says that this “is not meant to definitively indicate criminal intent.”

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy asked the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to look into the death. Funk is acting as an independent prosecutor in the case out of Nashville.

Memphis has been roiled by Tyre Nichols’ fatal beating by Memphis police in January. The Black motorist was punched, hit with a baton, kicked and pepper sprayed during an arrest that was recorded on video.

His death led to seven police firings, including of the five officers who have since been charged with second-degree murder in state court and federal civil rights violations. They have pleaded not guilty to all the charges.

Nichols’ family members were present at a March news conference during which Gershun Freeman’s family called for the corrections deputies involved in the confrontation with Freeman to be punished.

Freeman had been booked in jail Oct. 1 on charges of attacking and kidnapping his girlfriend, according to court records.

The video begins with two corrections officers serving meals to inmates in a narrow hallway. When Freeman’s cell opens, he runs out unclothed and appears to charge at the officers.

The officers wrestle him to the ground and begin to punch, kick and pepper-spray him. They are

joined by additional officers. The deputies move with Freeman out of the hallway. From another camera’s view, Freeman is seen wrapping himself around an officer’s legs in a different hallway.

The video shifts to a bank of escalators and Freeman, still naked, runs up one of them. In another hallway, a struggle continues with officers attempting to restrain him before getting him face-down on the ground. They can be seen stepping and kneeling on his back before he becomes still. One officer remained on Freeman’s back for several minutes before he was lifted.

He appears limp when officers do lift him up, with his head falling forward between his knees and his hands cuffed behind his back. He remains in that position until medical employees arrive, and the video ends.

Bonner, who is running for mayor of Memphis, said the deputies have been placed on paid administrative leave. Bonner said he supports them and claims the release of the video and the indictments are politically motivated because Mulroy, the Shelby County district attorney, supports a different mayoral candidate.

“Let me be clear. No action — no action — by any Shelby County Sheriff’s Office employee caused Mr. Freeman’s death,” Bonner said, adding later that he would be “the first one to donate” to any fundraiser to help with his deputies’ legal fees.

In a statement, Mulroy said he had endorsed candidate Van Turner for mayor before Freeman’s death. Mulroy also said he recused himself from the investigation “to keep politics out of the case.”

“I’ve had no involvement at all in the case since last year, and played no role in the decision to indict,” Mulroy said, adding that he supported the video release “in the name of transparency.”

Brice Timmons, a lawyer for Freeman’s family, said Bonner is to blame for Freeman’s death.

“He supports his officers. He creates these policies,” Timmons said in a news conference just outside the sheriff’s office.

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