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Released Video Shows Use of Force and Chaotic Chase Before Death of Gershun Freeman

A screen shot from Shelby County Jail footage showing a chaotic scene before Gershun Freeman's death.
A screen shot from Shelby County Jail footage showing a chaotic scene before Gershun Freeman's death.

Video of multiple altercations between correctional officers and a 33-year-old man, Gershun Freeman, who died while in custody at the Shelby County Jail has been released, following a move to turn the criminal investigation over to prosecutors outside of Memphis.

The Davidson County District Attorney’s Office in Nashville, which is now handling the case, released roughly 13 minutes of surveillance footage from inside the jail—commonly referred to as 201 Poplar—on Thursday.

It shows a chaotic scene where correctional officers pursue Freeman for several minutes through different locations—at one point up a set of escalators—after Freeman initially springs naked from his cell, swatting at jail staff who are delivering food.

Throughout the video, multiple staffers are shown repeatedly kicking and punching Freeman and using a chemical agent to try to subdue him. More than 10 officers appear in the video at different points, although it’s difficult to track which ones appear multiple times.

The released video is from Oct. 5, the date of Freeman's death and is compiled from an assortment of stationary overhead cameras and is edited together in apparent chronological order.

In multiple instances, both officers and Freeman struggle to stay on their feet due to what appears to be slippery surfaces, possibly caused by residue from a deployed chemical agent. There is no accompanying audio.

Officers pull one another way from the confrontation at one point.

About five minutes into the video, a smaller group of correctional officers eventually restrain Freeman, face down on the ground. Several hover over him with one appearing to straddle his lower body and at least one other appearing to apply pressure to Freeman’s back with his knee. After several minutes pass, officers attempt to get him on his feet. Freeman appears unresponsive. Medical personnel appear to arrive at the end of the video.

Freeman was pronounced dead at the scene, according to the state’s autopsy report conducted by the West Tennessee Regional Forensic Center. The report says Freeman received CPR after going into cardiac arrest and lists the cause of death as an exacerbation of cardiovascular disease “due to physical altercation and subdual.”

A probable psychotic disorder is identified as a contributing factor. The autopsy findings identify multiple contusions on the body and a scalp laceration.

Freeman also had a previous stab wound and a history of psychosis, it says. The death is ruled a homicide for classification purposes, but the autopsy notes that does not “definitively indicate criminal intent.”

A legal team representing Freeman’s family is awaiting the results of an independent autopsy.

In a statement, Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner, whose office runs the jail, said the released video is missing context.

“The full video does show the erratic and violent behavior that led to the need to restrain Mr. Freeman,” he said.

Before taking possible administrative action, Bonner said, “these corrections officers deserve a fair review of this case,” and that he would wait for the release of further investigative material from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the District Attorney’s office in Nashville.

Nationally-known civil rights attorney Ben Crump and Memphis lawyers Jake Brown and Brice Timmons are representing the Freeman’s family as they seek answers for his death.

In a joint statement, they praised officials for releasing the video, and said they were confident criminal charges would be forthcoming.

“The death of Gershun Freeman is yet another shocking example of police brutality in the Memphis and Shelby County criminal justice systems,” they said. “The newly released footage is visual evidence that at least 10 officers brutalized and beat Gershun to death, when he was naked and clearly suffering from a mental health crisis.”

Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy had requested that an authority independent of his office investigate the case, and announced Feb. 17 that the Davidson County District Attorney’s office in Nashville had been appointed.

A spokesperson for the Davidson County office said they would not comment further on the video at this point.

Katie is a part-time WKNO contributor. She's always eager to hear your story ideas. You can email her at kriordan@wkno.org