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'We want justice': Complaint seeks trial, $10M in case of Tenn. man who died in jail

"He was treated as if his life didn’t matter. We want the truth to be known. We want accountability."

Sterling Higgins, a 37-year-old Black man from Tennessee, died in March 2019 while being held in the Obion County Jail. Now, attorneys for his family are seeking justice as calls for changes to policing ripple across the United States in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

An amended civil rights complaint, filed Friday with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee Eastern Division at Jackson on behalf of Higgins’ estate, claims that he died from trauma while being restrained by jail officers who choked him and stood on his chest. The family is asking for a trial by jury and $10 million in damages.

The official cause of death was "excited delirium due to a methamphetamine overdose," according to an autopsy report, but the family's complaint alleges that the excessive force used in restraining Higgins led to his death.

“Sterling Higgins was a good man, who deserved fair and humane treatment,” said Jennifer Jenkins, the administrator of Higgins’ estate and mother of one of his daughters. “He left behind two young children, who will now grow up without a father. He was treated as if his life didn’t matter. We want the truth to be known. We want accountability. We want justice for Sterling Higgins.”

Sterling Higgins, 37, died in March 2019 while being detained in Obion County Jail in Tennessee Family photo

The new filing points out that the grand jury in the case were never shown videos of the incident based on a decision by Obion County's district attorney general. The grand jury declined last year to indict any of the jailers or law enforcement officers involved in the case.

“Imagine if a district attorney had empaneled a grand jury in the wake of George Floyd’s death — for the purpose of determining whether to file criminal charges,” Erik Heipt, the attorney who filed the complaint on Friday, said. “Imagine if he withheld the video we’ve all seen and only presented the officer’s version of events. And imagine if no charges were filed because of this. Videos matter. They don’t lie. Not showing the grand jury the videos in this case was a grave miscarriage of justice.”

The complaint names Union City, Obion County, three jail officers and a Union City police officer as defendants. The Obion County Sheriff’s Department did not return a request for comment about the complaint. The Union City Police Department declined to comment.

Higgins — a father to two young daughters and a factory worker who enjoyed performing rap music at local clubs — was being held on criminal trespass charges after a 911 call from a market stating that he had entered a storage locker area and refused to leave, according to the complaint.

Higgins had called 911 from the same market earlier claiming that someone was following him and trying to kill him, and a 911 dispatcher said he seemed disoriented, according to the complaint.

“Mr. Higgins’s demeanor throughout the course of the conversation suggested that he suffered from an existing mental disability,” the complaint states. “Among other things, his speech patterns were jumbled, his thought process was tangential, he was sometimes nonsensical, he displayed signs of paranoia, and he was otherwise acting in such a way that it would have been clear to any reasonable police officer that he was mentally impaired.”

Officers at the scene suggested that Higgins might need to go to a hospital and the encounter ended with Higgins agreeing to leave the market, the complaint said. He wound up coming back into the store and refused to leave, which is what led to his arrest.

Higgins was then taken to the Obion County Jail but was clearly in need of “medical and/or mental health professionals,” according to the complaint.

Sterling Higgins and his family.Family photo

The situation turned physical after Higgins grabbed a jail officer by the hair, claiming the officer was trying to harm him. That’s when several officers tried to restrain Higgins, according to the complaint.

Two officers took Higgins down to the ground on his back with his hands handcuffed behind him, the complaint said. In videos, one officer is seen with his hands around Higgins’ throat, according to the complaint, and other officers put shackles on his legs and ankles. Later another officer is seen on video appearing to stand directly on top of Higgins.

The complaint says that no officer intervened, and according to Heipt, the officer held onto Higgins’ neck for about 2 minutes after he lost consciousness.

Higgins was placed in a restraint chair as foam came from his mouth, and was then wheeled into a cell and left alone, the complaint says. Officers came into the room and checked Higgins for a pulse, and emergency services arrived at the jail 10 minutes later, the complaint states.

“It was another senseless, avoidable death of a young Black man in America. Like all the others, the life of Sterling Higgins mattered, and it was taken from him for no legitimate reason," Heipt said.

Obion County's District Attorney General Tommy Thomas told NBC News affiliate WPSD Local 6 that he declined to show videos of the incident to the grand jury becausehe didn’t believe they showed "any negligent conduct on behalf of the officers," and that he thought testimony from an agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation would be enough.

Thomas later told NBC News that he encouraged the family to pursue a civil case when he was unable to secure criminal charges.

Sterling Higgins.Family photo

“I met with the family many times and advised that they seek civil counsel,” Thomas said. “There very well could be civil damages, and then they did, and this lawsuit came out of that. I don’t oppose it, but that’s not in my jurisdiction.”

Thomas said he was aware Higgins had young children and he hoped that they would receive damages in their father’s death.

However, Thomas said that, as a district attorney for 30 years and a lawyer for longer, he was confident that the defendants “will have a different take than the plaintiff.”

“Obviously, Mr. Higgins died in custody, but I feel confident they will deny some of the allegations, too. It’ll just have to play out. Either the case will be settled or it will go to trial sometime in the future,” Thomas said. “But as far as I’m concerned, my involvement is over.”

Excited delirium syndrome, as cited in the autopsy report, “has raised continued controversy regarding the cause and manner of death of some highly agitated persons held in police custody,” according to research from the National Center for Biotechnology Information. The research states that the diagnosis typically comes when medical examiners have difficulty in identifying an anatomic cause of death, but stimulants are involved.

Attorneys for Higgins’ estate believe excited delirium is not what caused Higgins’ death, that it was more likely “asphyxia, suffocation, and/or strangulation.” The autopsy report also showed there was trauma to Higgins’ neck and a hemorrhage of the left omohyoid muscle, deep in the neck. There was also bleeding in the white part of the eye, which can sometimes be present in cases of asphyxiation.

Thomas said that for him to prosecute the case as a homicide, the autopsy and pathologist would have had to conclude that Higgins was killed, and they didn't.

"The autopsy, the pathologist determined the gentleman died from methamphetamine toxicity and a very high level of methamphetamine in his system," Thomas said.

"Now, if it had come back that he died of strangulation, then I would have had a homicide case. But he's the one who ingested the methamphetamine at such a high level."