MEMPHIS— In a city still reeling from the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of Memphis police officers (see Final Call Vol. 42 No. 18), justice is now being demanded for Gershun Freeman, who died in custody at the Memphis Shelby County Jail, after a physical altercation with correctional officers.
On March 7, a 13-minute video was released by jail officials showing Mr. Freeman rushing from his cell during meal service, and officers immediately subduing him, forcefully, with pepper spray, kicks and punches for several minutes, with one officer wielding a baton. Later cutaway footage shows that he appeared to have escaped to another floor and has additional encounters with officers.
Eight minutes into the video, Gershun Freeman can be seen being restrained by three officers with at least one kneeling into his back for over five minutes, while he is being placed into handcuffs. Moments later, he is face down and not moving. As an officer attempts to lift him, his body falls limply to the ground.
Noted civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, representing the family of Mr. Freeman, returned to Memphis less than three weeks after attending the funeral of Mr. Nichols. He along with Atty. Brice Timmons; Atty. Jake Brown; Atty. Van Turner, president of the NAACP Memphis branch and Josh Spickler, executive director of Just City, held a press conference, Feb. 17, to call on the Department of Justice to open an investigation, into Gershun Freeman’s death.
Prior to the press conference, the family had only been shown an edited video of Mr. Freeman out of his cell, naked, but no footage leading up to why he was out of his cell. He died four days after his October 1, 2022 arrest.
“It’s shocking to think, here in Memphis, where we recently witnessed the abuse in the video of law enforcement beating an unarmed Black man to death, that inside the jail, we might have another instance of law enforcement beating an unarmed Black man to death in the jail,” Atty. Crump stated.
“It’s hard to say that you had a fear for your life when a man is naked, in a jail. Why is it that they continue to engage in a most excessive use of force when it’s Black citizens? We continue to raise this issue over and over again, but as we say, we don’t see videos of them killing White citizens, unarmed, in this manner.”
During the press conference, Atty. Van Turner, who previously served for eight years as a county commissioner, recounted how he received calls from families of inmates who were being deprived of basic needs and proper medical attention.
“As a commissioner, as a father, as a Black man, we are painfully aware that once you go into 201 Poplar [Shelby County Jail] you may not be able to come out the same way you went in and that’s a problem. That’s a problem. Not convicted of a crime, not found guilty, but yet you go into this system and you don’t come out alive. So, we’re calling for justice for Gershun Freeman,” stated Atty. Turner.
“I’m standing next to his baby girl and, like all fathers, we want to see our babies grow up. Mr. Freeman was deprived of the opportunity to walk his baby girl down the aisle when she got married. Deprived of watching her go to her prom in her 12th-grade year. Deprived of being the father that he knew he could have been and the father she should have had, had Mr. Freeman been given his basic rights while in jail,” he added.
“This isn’t the first allegation of brutality of marginalized people at the Shelby County Jail. Just because you are a detainee at the county jail does not mean the jailers get to be the judge, the jury, and the executioner,” said Atty. Crump. Fourteen inmates died in custody in 2022 in the jail.
Shelby County Jail is a pretrial facility that houses 2,300 inmates and has come under fire for poor conditions such as leaky pipes, mold and rust, and inmates forced to stay locked up an excessive amount of hours, in some cases up to 23 hours, due to staffing shortage, according to recent statements by Shelby County Commissioner Britney Thornton.
Former Memphis police officer Demetrius Haley, one of the five officers charged in the Tyre Nichols case, worked as a correction officer in the Shelby County Jail until he was hired by the MPD in 2020, and had been accused of taking part in another beating of an inmate in 2015, so savage that the entire cellblock of 34 inmates penned a letter to the corrections director pleading for intervention. That inmate filed a federal lawsuit in 2016 against him and two other officers.
In August 2000, the Shelby County Jail came under federal investigation which concluded that there were constitutional violations of detainee rights, with remedial measures that were to be implemented with oversight, including the jail’s use of force policy.
According to released autopsy reports, Mr. Freeman, who was reported to suffer from psychosis and heart disease, died of a heart attack, due to the physical confrontation with officers. It also listed multiple bruises and contusions on his body, a deep cut on his scalp, and a healing stab wound on his back. His death has been listed as a homicide.
The Nashville District Attorney’s office is acting as an independent prosecutor in the case and it is currently under review by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.