An Arkansas inmate yelled “I can’t breathe” as he was flung to the ground, piled on by five officers and pepper-sprayed the night before he died in jail, video revealed Wednesday.
Michael Sabbie, a 35-year-old father of four from Texarkana, died at the Bi-State Jail three days after he was arrested on a misdemeanor domestic assault charge last July, according to Texarkana Police.
Corrections officers at the facility near the borders of Arkansas, Texas and Louisiana violently subdued him and ignored his pleas for medical aid, according to a video published Wednesday by The Huffington Post. The Department of Justice has declined to pursue charges in the July 22, 2015, death.
Sabbie’s family “cannot conceive of how something like this could happen to an American citizen,” his loved ones said in a statement to the news outlet.
“He was treated as if his life did not matter,” the family said. “Most of all they want justice and accountability and to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Sabbie could be seen in surveillance footage leaning against a wall at the beginning of the 6-minute video. A guard at the jail, which is run by a private company called LaSalle Corrections, used Sabbie’s shirt to throw him to the ground when Sabbie tried to walk away from a cell block.
Five officers swarmed on top of Sabbie, who began shouting “I can’t breathe” as another guard began filming on a body camera. A sixth joined the group struggling with Sabbie and pepper-sprayed him in the face, accusing Sabbie of resisting them.
“Get your hands behind your back or you’ll get it again!” the guard yelled. The guards picked up Sabbie and propped him against a wall outside a nurse’s office.
“I can’t breathe, sir,” Sabbie said, his trousers falling off him as he panted for air. “Please, please. I got pneumonia.”
He begged for water as a nurse examined him quickly and released him. She said his symptoms were normal for someone who had been pepper-sprayed, according to documents obtained by the news outlet.
Sabbie continued panting and saying “Please, please” as the officers brought him to a shower to wash off the spray, put him on the ground in his cell and closed the door.
The guards then said Sabbie had attacked one of them after refusing to go back to his cell. Yet his family’s attorney, Erik Heipt, told Huffington Post that Sabbie had complained “I can’t breathe” 19 different times in the nine total minutes of video obtained by the family.
“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,” Heipt said. “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.”
Representatives for LaSalle Corrections didn’t immediately respond Wednesday night to requests for comment.
Police have said Sabbie was found dead in his cell at 6:30 a.m., roughly 14 hours after the encounter with the jail guards.
Medical examiners ruled Sabbie’s cause of death “hypertensive arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease.” The guards’ handling of him the day before “played a minimal role in the decedent’s death, and may not have contributed at all to his death.”
And investigators in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division informed Sabbie’s family that the “evidence does not establish a prosecutable violation of the federal criminal civil rights statute.”
Yet Heipt told Huffington Post the family believes Sabbie died from a treatable and recognizable medical emergency called a pulmonary edema, which is excess fluid in the lungs due to his heart condition. Sabbie had said he was spitting blood and needed to go to a hospital in court, where a judge set his bail at $2,500.
Police said his wife reported that Sabbie threatened her during a fight over money before his arrest. But Sabbie pleaded not guilty to the domestic assault charge, and his wife Teresa called his death “a tragedy that should never have happened” in a statement to the news outlet.
“I can’t put into words how devastated my children and I are after the loss of Michael,” she said. “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.”