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Family of Man Who Died at California Jail After Shouting ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Demands Answers From Sheriff

In October 2018, Marshall Miles died at the Sacramento County jail after struggling with deputies. His lawyers say a deposition scheduled for next month will force the sheriff to answer for the in-custody death.

Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones at a news conference in 2018.Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

For nearly 10 minutes, Marshall Miles screamed that he couldn’t breathe. It was Oct. 28, 2018, and the 36-year-old father of two was lying on the concrete floor of the Sacramento County main jail with three sheriff’s deputies on top of him, pressing their knees into his shoulders and back. In video taken by jail guards, Miles, who was shackled at the wrists and ankles, wailed in agony.

One deputy asked Miles to “relax and stop acting silly”—to which he replied “I can’t breathe. I’m dead.” He was then moved to a segregation cell. 

As the deputies walked away from Miles’s cell, he laid motionless on the floor, face down, with his pants around his ankles. Approximately 30 seconds later, deputies rushed back in and attempted to perform CPR, but it was too late. Less than 24 hours after Miles was arrested as a result of a 911 call that he was behaving strangely near a convenience store, he stopped breathing. An autopsy later stated that Miles died in part because of the way deputies restrained him.

In May 2019, Miles’s family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones and the officers involved for negligent training and supervision, civil rights violations, and wrongful death. In December, Miles’s family filed an amended complaint; in April, they filed a second amended complaint

But now, amid worldwide protests after the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers—and an executive order signed by President Trump on Tuesday encouraging state and local law enforcement agencies to enact “use-of-force policies [that] prohibit the use of chokeholds … except in those situations where the use of deadly force is allowed by law”—lawyers for Miles’s family are set to question Jones under oath on July 27 about how his department plans to prevent similar deaths in his facilities. 

Jeremy Lessem, a lawyer for Miles’s wife and children, told The Appeal that he has now deposed four of the deputies involved in Miles’s death. 

“There seems to be a huge discrepancy between what the sheriff says his cops are trained on and what the officers actually say they know,” Lessem said.  “Of every deputy who physically acknowledged touching Marshall—none claimed to have ever been trained on where to place a knee or how to avoid asphyxiating someone. There seemed to be a complete ignorance and lack of knowledge about the safe way to restrain somebody on the ground in that manner.”

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department did not respond to messages from The Appeal seeking comment for this story. On April 17, the department filed an answer to the second amended complaint, effectively denying the allegations against its officers.

Jones and his department have long been accused of violating the civil rights of people who live in Sacramento County.  In 2018, the Sacramento Bee’s editorial board compared Jones to Bull Connor, the segregationist who served as Birmingham, Alabama’s public safety commissioner during the 1960s. After the newspaper revealed that Jones launched a personal war against Rick Braziel, the county’s then-inspector general, the editorial board wrote that Jones was “on the wrong side of civil rights.” 

Braziel had criticized Jones’s deputies for the fatal shooting of Mikel Laney McIntyre, a 32-year-old former Major League Baseball prospect, in May 2017.  Like Miles, McIntyre was experiencing a mental health crisis when deputies encountered him. After a series of interactions with fire rescue officers and deputies, McIntyre wound up on the side of a highway throwing rocks at deputies. Officers responded by firing at least 28 rounds at McIntyre. He was struck seven times and died.  In late January, Sacramento County settled a wrongful death lawsuit in the McIntrye case for $1.7 million. 

Braziel, who previously served as Sacramento sheriff, later issued a report calling the shooting “excessive, “unnecessary,” and an event that “put the community at risk.” In response, the Bee reported, Jones locked Braziel out of the department’s facilities, including the jail.

In a 2019 interview with The Appeal, Miles’s mother, LaTanya Andrews, said a friend called her to warn her that her son seemed to be in a mental health crisis outside the Power Market gas station convenience store. By the time she arrived on the scene, the California Highway Patrol and Sacramento County sheriff’s deputies had already apprehended Miles. Andrews told The Appeal that she begged the officers to help her son or take him to the hospital, but her pleas were ignored.

They left me standing there,” she said in the interview. “When they started driving off, I just stood there and started crying.”

About 14 hours later, the sheriff’s department contacted Miles’s eldest sister and told her that he had “become unresponsive” in the jail and was in critical condition at a nearby hospital. Miles’s family visited him shortly before he died. But after Miles’s death, family members said they did not receive a clear explanation about what happened until Jones’s department published gruesome jailhouse video footage on YouTube without warning them.

In the surveillance footage, Miles screams loudly inside the Power Market, sprints into a nearby fast-food restaurant, and then jumps onto the hood of a car. Law enforcement officials said the California Highway Patrol initially arrested Miles; he was eventually charged with two misdemeanor counts of vandalism.

Now, Lessem, the family’s attorney, says he hopes that next month’s deposition of Sheriff Jones will force him to answer for his deputies’ deadly handling of Miles.  

“We want him to explain to us why his deputies were not trained on these positional asphyxia issues—he’s gotta tell us that either his deputies weren’t trained or his deputies are wrong or not telling the truth,” Lessem said. “We need him to clear up what exactly is the training situation—have they changed anything or tried to make any improvements since this incident? Based on our discovery responses so far, it seems like no remedial actions were taken as a result of this—no policy changes, no procedure changes—based on what happened at all.”