“I can’t breathe” became a nationally recognized phrase of the Black Lives Matter movement after the public killing of Eric Garner. Although those words were often said in many times of protest, those words were also used by Arkansas inmate Michael Sabbie. Actually, they were used 19 times, to be exact.
Sabbie was an inmate at the Bi State Jail, which sits between Arkansas and Texas. The 35-year-old father of four was originally arrested in July 2015 after allegedly threatening his wife during an argument. He was charged with third-degree assault on a household or family-member, which is a misdemeanor crime.
Three days after his arrest, Sabbie died in jail. Officials reported that Sabbie died of natural causes, specifically “hypertensive arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease.” However, new footage suggests the violent interaction Sabbie had with jail officers could have been the cause of death.
The night before Sabbie was found dead, he was involved in a violent altercation with five guards. The five officers piled on top of him, while he was pressed hard against the concrete floor. Another guard arrived and pepper sprayed him in the face. At this point, Sabbie had already said “I can’t breathe” at least two times.
He continued to tell the guards he couldn’t breathe while they forced him up against the wall and then into a shower. At another point, Sabbie begged not to be pepper sprayed again and continued to tell guards that he couldn’t breathe. He was pepper sprayed anyway and put back into his cell, where he was found dead the next morning.
Sabbie is not the first inmate to have died under mysterious circumstances while detained; however, unlike other prisoners, the moments before Sabbie’s death were recorded.
“If you just looked at the cause of death, you would think that Michael died of some sort of hypertensive heart condition, and that may be true,” said Erik J. Heipt, one of the attorneys representing the Sabbie family. “But if we didn’t have a video, we’d never know that he had been begging for help due to his shortness of breath and inability to breathe. We’d never know that he said ‘I can’t breathe’ 19 times in the nine minutes that we hear in that video.”
Sabbie’s family attempted to take legal action against the jail, but the Department of Justice told Sabbie’s wife, Teresa, that they would not prosecute anyone involved in his death.
“I can’t put into words how devastated my children and I are after the loss of Michael,” Teresa said in a statement. “He was my backbone and best friend. My children lost a wonderful father who wanted the best for his family. A piece of our heart is gone, and I pray to God for justice. This was a tragedy that should never have happened.”
The full video can be seen below. It contains graphic content.
(Photo: Michael Sabbie via Facebook)