A disturbing and infuriating video has surfaced showing a group of Texas jail guards piling on top of an inmate who repeatedly tells them he can’t breathe, only for him to be found dead in his cell the following morning.
Nineteen times in nine minutes is how many times Michael Sabbie told the guards, “I can’t breathe,” only for them to pepper spray him and tell him to stop resisting when the video shows him not to be resisting.
The basic details of Sabbie’s death, one of more than 800 jail deaths counted by The Huffington Post in the year after Sandra Bland died in jail on July 13, 2015, wouldn’t normally raise much suspicion. The initial news reports said that Sabbie, who was arrested on a domestic assault charge, was found “unresponsive” on the morning of July 22, 2015, suggesting he died in his sleep. A medical examiner ― noting Sabbie’s obesity and that he had significant heart muscle damage ― deemed his death “natural,” a label that implies it was an unavoidable tragedy. Those circumstances wouldn’t make Sabbie’s death terribly unique: Heart disease killed an average of 226 jail inmates a year from 2000 until 2013, making it the leading cause of jail deaths after suicides.
But calling Sabbie’s death “natural” obscures more than it illuminates, and would hide the failures that very likely could have prevented his death. A quick internal investigation might have absolved jail employees of any wrongdoing. But in Sabbie’s case, there’s video.
“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,” said Erik J. Heipt, one of the attorneys representing the Sabbie family. “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.”
Sabbie, 35, had been arrested two days earlier after arguing with his wife over money. Police said his wife accused him of threatening her before stepping out of the car and walking away.
Sabbie denied threatening his wife, but was charged with misdemeanor assault.
He was transported to the privately run Bi State Jail in Texarkana, a city on the Texas/Arkansas border, where guards make about ten dollars an hour.
A United States Department of Justice investigation found the guards did nothing wrong.