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Family of Gershun Freeman Seek Accountability for His In-Custody Death

Kimberly Freeman, Gershun's mother, speakers to reporters at a press conference March 17, 2023.
Kimberly Freeman, Gershun's mother, speakers to reporters at a press conference March 17, 2023.

The family of Gerhsun Freeman pushed for accountability for the 33-year-old’s death at a press conference Friday afternoon, as their legal team denounced the treatment of those experiencing mental health crises in the criminal justice system.

“Our jail has become the default mental health facility in Memphis,” said Brice Timmons, a Memphis lawyer representing Freeman’s family.

Timmons says Freeman was in mental distress and under suicide watch the day he sprung naked from his cell at the Shelby County Jail – known as 201 Poplar – swatting at correctional officers as they delivered food. Recently released footage from Oct. 5 inside the facility shows multiple altercations with correctional officers leading up to his death.

Staff members are shown repeatedly kicking and punching Freeman and using a presumed chemical irritant to try to subdue him at different points as they pursue him on a chaotic chase through several locations in the jail. One officer appears to use a metal canister to strike him.

Eventually a smaller group of jail staff 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. Freeman appears unresponsive once they try to lift him.

According to the state’s autopsy report, the cause of Freeman’s death is an exacerbation of cardiovascular disease “due to physical altercation and subdual.” The death is classified a homicide but the report notes that the label does not “definitively indicate criminal intent.”

Freeman had a history of psychosis, the document also says and the autopsy lists a probable psychotic disorder as a contributing factor to his death.

Sheriff Floyd Bonner, whose office runs the jail, said in a previous statement that the released video was publicly shared without full context and does not "show the erratic and violent behavior that led to the need to restrain Mr. Freeman.”

The District Attorney’s Office in Nashville is handling the investigation of Freeman’s death after Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy rescued his office from it. At the time of his death, Freeman was being held in jail on charges of assaulting and kidnapping his girlfriend.

Kimberly Freeman, Gerhsun’s mother, says justice for her son includes identifying the officers under investigation for his death.

“They have blood on their hands,” she told reporters. “They go home every night to their family. Whereas, for me and my granddaughter, we have to see my son, her father, in a box.”

The parents of Tyre Nichols, RowVaughn and Rodney Wells, appeared alongside Freeman’s family at the press conference to offer their support. Nichols died in the hospital three days afterMemphis Police officers were shown on video footage severely beating him in early January.

While attorneys say they believe that criminal charges will be forthcoming in Freeman's case, Timmons said Sheriff Bonner should also take internal disciplinary action against correctional officers.

“Those same guards are watching over those same people experiencing mental health crises in the Shelby County Jail today,” Timmons said. "It has to stop somewhere, and so for all of us gathered here today, we say it stops here."

The Sheriff’s Office said in a statement on Friday that all officers who had contact with Freeman during the Oct. 5 incident were relieved of duty that night and have not returned to work.

“Immediate action was taken by the Sheriff the night of the incident in October 2022,” the statement reads. “Per protocol, DA Mulroy and [the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation] were contacted that night to begin the investigation.”

In his previous comments, Bonner said he would wait to take any further administrative action against correctional officers pending further information from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation or from prosecutors considering criminal charges.

“It’s unfortunate this case is being tried in the media before the review is complete”, Bonner said in his most recent statement, adding that he “recently obtained a commitment from the State Mental Health Commissioner to double the number of beds for jail inmates at the Memphis Mental Health Institute.”

The District Attorney’s Office in Nashville has declined to comment on the case.

This post has been updated with comments from the Sheriff's Office.