Nine sheriff’s deputies in Memphis have been indicted in the death of a man with mental health problems who died in custody last fall after being stomped, punched and pinned down, a sheriff and lawyer said on Wednesday, the latest case to draw attention to how law enforcement responds to a person in mental distress.
The sealed indictments against the Shelby County, Tenn., deputies, whose names were not released on Wednesday night, were announced by Sheriff Floyd Bonner at a news conference where he disputed that his deputies had caused the death of Gershun Freeman, 33.
Mr. Freeman was being held at the Shelby County Jail last fall and, according to his family’s lawyer, kept in a section reserved for suicidal inmates before being beaten after he yelled throughout the day in his cell.
Sheriff Bonner, by holding a news conference, was able to announce the indictments himself, pre-empting the district attorney. Sheriff Bonner is running for mayor of Memphis, the seat of Shelby County. The district attorney there, Steve Mulroy, recused himself from the case against the deputies because he had already endorsed Sheriff Bonner’s mayoral opponent, Van Turner, a former president of the Memphis branch of the N.A.A.C.P.
The district attorney in Nashville, Glenn Funk, is instead prosecuting the case. He did not respond late Wednesday night to an email seeking comment.
Two of the deputies were charged with second-degree murder, and seven with aggravated assault, according to Jake Brown, a lawyer for Mr. Freeman’s family, who said in an interview that he had spoken about the indictments on Wednesday morning with the district attorney’s office in Nashville.
Sheriff Bonner, who did not respond to an email seeking comment late Wednesday night, said that “the way the case was being handled is political, and it’s only grown worse” and that Mr. Funk should not have released footage in March of the episode.
An autopsy found that Mr. Freeman had a heart condition that was worsened by the beating, The Commercial Appeal reported.
Mr. Freeman, who had long struggled with his mental health, was arrested last Oct. 1 after he was accused of attacking and kidnapping his girlfriend.
Footage of the beating days later, on Oct. 5, shows Mr. Freeman being beaten by at least nine deputies after running naked from his cell. Mr. Brown said that Mr. Freeman initially ran out because an officer was pointing a chemical irritant spray at him.
In the video, which has no sound, Mr. Freeman remains on the floor as deputies kick and punch him. At one point, two deputies who appear to slip on the floor walk toward Mr. Freeman and hold his legs as other deputies grab him.
Mr. Freeman then breaks free, runs in the hallways and is sprayed with what appears to be chemical irritant, causing him to fall down. He then gets up and runs up an escalator. A deputy catches up with him, and Mr. Freeman appears to swing at the deputy, the footage shows. Mr. Freeman is then brought back down by three deputies who punch and kick him, eventually handcuffing him.
Mr. Freeman appears to move again while on the floor and handcuffed, as one deputy places a knee on his upper back. The video shows the deputy keeping a knee there for about six minutes before Mr. Freeman is dragged up, but his body appears to be limp.
Mr. Freeman was pronounced dead at the jail, Mr. Brown said.
The indicted officers are on paid administrative leave, Sheriff Bonner said, adding that if a fund-raiser was held to help with their legal fees, he would “be the first one to donate.”
In a separate case that has drawn a national outcry and closer scrutiny of policing practices in Memphis, Tyre Nichols, a 29-year-old Black man, was beaten by officers there in January. He was stopped for what the police initially said was reckless driving but died three days after a violent confrontation ensued.