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Newly released video has revealed the dying moments of an African-American active-duty soldier who checked himself into the El Paso, Texas, county jail for a two-day sentence for driving under the influence, and died while in custody in 2012. Authorities claimed Sgt. James Brown died due to a pre-existing medical condition, but shocking new video from inside the jail raises new questions about what happened.
The video shows guards swarming on top of him as he repeatedly says he can’t breathe and appears not to resist. By the end of the video, he is shown naked, not blinking or responding, his breathing shallow.
Attorneys say an ambulance was never called. Brown was eventually brought to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. His family had long suspected foul play in his death but received little information from authorities. They’ve now filed a lawsuit against El Paso County saying his constitutional rights were violated. We are joined by Brown’s mother, Dinetta Scott.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We begin today with a story about an Iraq War veteran who served two tours in Iraq only to die in a county jail in El Paso, Texas. Sergeant James Brown was just 26 years old when he mysteriously died in 2012 after he reported to jail for a two-day sentence for driving while intoxicated. Brown, who was African-American, was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder at the time. His family had long suspected foul play in his death but received little information from authorities, who said he died because of a pre-existing medical condition. Well, a local news station, KFOX14, recently obtained video from inside the jail showing Brown’s last moments.
AMY GOODMAN: The video shows something happened which caused Brown to bleed in his cell. When he refuses to speak with guards, a team in riot gear storms in and swarms on top of him, while he repeatedly says he can’t breathe and appears not to resist. A warning to our audience: The following video is disturbing.
SGT. JAMES BROWN: I can’t breathe! Dude, I can’t breathe! Help me! Help me! Help! I can’t breathe! I’m choking on my blood! Help me! I’m choking on my blood! I’m choking on my blood! I’m choking on my blood!
AMY GOODMAN: “I’m choking on my blood!” said Sergeant James Brown. As his condition deteriorates, as he’s carried to an infirmary and has a mask placed over his face, he’s then given an injection. He begs for water and is given half a Dixie cup as he heaves. Sergeant Brown repeatedly states he’s having severe trouble breathing.
SGT. JAMES BROWN: Now that’s blocking too much air. That’s over my nose and my mouth. Could you unhook my arm out of this?
PRISON GUARD: You need to calm down first.
SGT. JAMES BROWN: Can I lay on the floor?
PRISON GUARD: No, sir.
SGT. JAMES BROWN: Well, you’re going to have to do one or the other to help my breathing. Please, that’s all I ask.
PRISON GUARD: You got to calm down a little bit first.
SGT. JAMES BROWN: I will. I just need the mask—please.
PRISON GUARD: Relax.
SGT. JAMES BROWN: Please. Please. I can’t breathe. I can’t relax. You’ve got to take this mask off, dude, please.
PRISON GUARD: Can’t take it off, sir. I’m sorry.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: By the end of the video, Brown has said he can’t breathe at least 20 times. Then he is left naked in a cell, not blinking or responding, his breathing shallow. Attorneys say an ambulance was never called. Brown was eventually brought to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Authorities claim he died from natural causes after an autopsy report cited a, quote, “sickle cell crisis.” But his family says he died as a result of his treatment in jail. The family’s attorney, B.J. Crow, spoke to KFOX.
B.J. CROW: When a 26-year-old active military person checks in to jail for a court-imposed sentence on a Friday, and he leaves Sunday, you know, in a casket, something went horribly wrong there. He was bleeding out the ears, the nose, the mouth. His kidneys shut down. His blood pressure dropped to a very dangerous level. And his liver shut down.
AMY GOODMAN: Sergeant James Brown’s family has filed a lawsuit against El Paso County saying his constitutional rights were violated. Democracy Now! invited El Paso County Sheriff Richard Wiles to join us on Democracy Now! today, but he declined. He did send a statement saying, quote, “Mr. Brown’s death was an unfortunate tragedy. The Sheriff’s Office has conducted a thorough review of the facts surrounding Mr. Brown’s death and, based upon all the evidence obtained, determined that his death was caused by a pre-existing medical condition.”
Well, for more, we go to Seattle, Washington, where we’re joined by Sergeant James Brown’s mother, Dinetta Scott.
Ms. Scott, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you explain the significance of this video that has now been released because a local TV station in El Paso had been trying to get it for years now? The death of your son, Sergeant Brown, occurred in 2012. It’s now 2015. Tell us about the significance of what you know now.
DINETTA SCOTT: Amy, I have not watched this video in its entirety. I have seen four seconds of it, and I heard my son begging for his life. I can’t watch it. I do know that it is very disturbing. The part that I did see, where he is unable to breathe, it’s devastating. It’s inhumane. It’s unexplainable what happened to him.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Were you ever told by authorities that the video existed and why it’s never come to light or been made public since then?
DINETTA SCOTT: No, that was never explained to us.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And in terms of the autopsy report, did authorities—what did they tell you about how your son died?
DINETTA SCOTT: The medical examiner stated that it was a sickle cell crisis due to him being restrained. That’s why he went into a sickle cell crisis. And he stated that he had viewed this on the video. And that’s when we said, “A video exists. We would like that video.” And nothing ever came of that until two-and-a-half years later, which is where we’re at now.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the video is just astonishing. But can you go back to 2012 to—did you talk to your son before he self-reported into the jail? He was stopped for DUI, and he was going to be held—what? For two nights?
DINETTA SCOTT: Correct. He received the DWI in 2011, and they had continuously went to court. When he got his sentencing, it was five days with time served, so since he had already served three days when they initially picked him up, he only had to do the weekend. I spoke to him prior to him checking in on that Friday night, and then I received a call from him Saturday morning, stating that the jailers had said he was going to have to stay incarcerated for seven days instead of the initial two days. And he said, “Could you please send money so that I can pay the court fine, so that I can leave here? Because I need to report to duty on Monday.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, he had already served two tours in Iraq, and he was still on active duty?
DINETTA SCOTT: Correct.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when was he diagnosed with post-traumatic stress?
DINETTA SCOTT: I believe it was the beginning of 2011.
AMY GOODMAN: Did he talk to you about the conditions in the jail, Dinetta Scott?
DINETTA SCOTT: No, he just basically said he needed to get out of there, and could I please get the money so that he could leave, and he would explain everything to me when he got out.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe your son, Sergeant James Brown, to us?
DINETTA SCOTT: Excuse me. He was a jokester. He was very confident, a natural born leader, loyal to no fault, a loving person. Either you liked him, or you didn’t. He didn’t really care what people thought of him. He just was a loving kind of guy, one of a kind. And I’m not saying that just because he’s my son. He just was a genuine person. He didn’t sugarcoat things, and he didn’t lie to you. If you wanted to know the truth, that’s the person that you would ask. And many of his friends said, you know, if you wanted somebody to have your back, you wanted James Brown to have your back.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the terrible irony of him coming back from serving his country twice in Iraq to end up in a cell, dead in a cell, in El Paso, Texas?
DINETTA SCOTT: In that video, I heard my son begging for his life on U.S. soil. This was not his enemy that he was facing. This was a U.S. citizen that was treating him like he was an animal. And it should not be allowed. That should not happen to anyone in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: We were just showing pictures of James. How many kids does he have?
DINETTA SCOTT: Two.
AMY GOODMAN: How old are his children?
DINETTA SCOTT: His stepson, Armani, is 12, and his daughter, Jayliah, is five.
AMY GOODMAN: When did he join the military?
DINETTA SCOTT: In 2005.
AMY GOODMAN: Was it right out of high school?
DINETTA SCOTT: No, he graduated in 2004, and he was in a car—a motorcycle accident in 2003, which he had to have a rod put into his femur, so he opted to wait a year to have that rod removed so that he could join the military. So his joining was delayed.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: In the past year or two, we’ve seen this enormous growth of the Black Lives Matter movement as a result of what’s happened in Ferguson and Cleveland and other African-American men killed under—in police custody. Your son died almost three years ago. And your sense of the connection to this movement that has grown up in the United States in the last two years?
DINETTA SCOTT: I believe it—race isn’t an issue. I believe it’s men who have been given a certain amount of authority who are abusing it. It’s very unfortunate that all the victims have been African-American, but this lies within our system. These are people that are abusing their authority and using it inappropriately.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Dinetta Scott, what has happened to these guards? One, the pile-on we see in the cell, then this mask is put over him. He is begging, saying he’s not—he can’t take the mask off, can they take the mask off, that he can’t breathe, that he is choking on his own blood. What happened to all these guards?
DINETTA SCOTT: Absolutely nothing.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to play one clip for you. KFOX14 in El Paso interviewed one of the last people to see Sergeant Brown alive, a fellow prisoner who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
ANONYMOUS PRISONER: He was like, “I didn’t do nothing. You know what? I’m staying back here. I’m keeping my mouth shut.” Well, he grabbed him. They took him out, and they took him to a little room in front of us. They took him back there. They kind of roughed him up. And when they were bringing him out, a guard from behind gave him a—I don’t know what this shot is called. Some guys here were telling me that some places can do that. I never knew they can do that. They gave him a shot, and he collapsed. I guess he didn’t react good to it. And when he collapsed, that’s when they jumped on him, and they kind of beat him up and picked—I mean, he was out of conscious, so really there was no need for them to jump on him the way they did. Pretty bad. Like he was already out of conscious, and it’s like you jumping on somebody and putting your elbow in their neck. You know, you can probably snap somebody’s neck like that. And they picked him up and dragged him out.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that was a fellow prisoner who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He was speaking on a jail phone through a glass. Dinetta Scott, can you respond to what he described about what happened to your son, Sergeant James Brown?
DINETTA SCOTT: It’s inexcusable. They all need to be held accountable for what they did to my son. The sheriff made a statement that my son died of natural causes. There was nothing natural about the way that he died. They never should have went in that cell. They never should have pulled him out. And if there was a problem, they should have contacted the military, or they should have contacted mental health, somebody that was able to deal with him, instead of rushing him like that and attacking him and beating him when he’s down and can’t defend his self. It’s unacceptable.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you asking for in the lawsuit?
DINETTA SCOTT: I want change. I want policies and procedures put in place that will protect our soldiers when they are in public facilities, that the military step in and take accountability for their soldiers. These are men that they trained. They should never be put in the hands of civilians, because civilians live one life, and soldiers live another life. And they need to be dealt with by soldiers. Policies need to be put in place for CID, that when an incident happens in a public facility, they need to go in and investigate, instead of just taking the word of that institution. They need to find out what happened to their soldier. And if they have a liaison in place, they would already know what went wrong, when it went wrong, or whatever the case may be. I believe if my son would have had a representative from the military with him every step of the way, we wouldn’t be here today.
AMY GOODMAN: One last question: Do we know what your son was injected with? In that video, we see him injected at least once by the guards.
DINETTA SCOTT: According to the report, it was [Haloperidol] and Ativan, combination. I am not sure on the exact amount that was given to him, but according to the jail report, that is what they state they gave him.
AMY GOODMAN: Dinetta Scott, we want to thank you for being with us, mother of Sergeant James Brown, also our condolences. Sergeant James Brown died after being held in an El Paso County jail in 2012. He served in Iraq two tours of duty before he came home. He was on active duty at the time.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Do black women’s lives matter? That’s the question that’s being raised by a group of people around the country, those who have lost loved ones, black women, at the hands of authorities, of police. Stay with us.