‘I Can't Breathe’: Father Of Four Begged For Help Before Dying In Jail

Michael Sabbie pleaded for water and told prison guards he couldn't breathe as they wrestled, gassed and showered him hours before his death.

Warning: Some viewers might find the contents of this video disturbing.

A video from a private prison on the Texas-Arkansas-Louisiana border revealed the disturbing circumstances around the death of a 35-year-old black inmate. The Texarkana man died last year in July, but the Huffington Post released the footage online on Wednesday.

Michael Sabbie, father of four, was found dead in his cell at the Bi-State Jail three days after the police arrested him on misdemeanor and domestic assault charges. When he had appeared in the court earlier, he said he was spitting blood and needed to go to a hospital.

A judge set his bail at $2,500.

The graphic video shows how the correctional officers violently subdued him and ignored his pleas for medical aid in the hours before his death. In fact, they flung him to the ground, piled on top of him, pepper-sprayed him in the face and took no notice as Sabbie screamed, “I can’t breathe.”

The surveillance footage shows the victim leaning against a wall when guard at the jail, run by a private company called LaSalle Corrections, threw him to the ground. Five officers attacked Sabbie as he began begging for help. A sixth joined the group and pepper-sprayed Sabbie, accusing him of resisting them.

“Get your hands behind your back or you’ll get it again!” a guard yelled as the others joined in and picked up Sabbie, propping him against a wall outside a nurse’s office.

“I can’t breathe, sir,” the inmate responded. “Please, please. I got pneumonia.”

He continued to beg for water as a nurse examined him, claiming his symptoms were normal for someone who had been hit with the stinging chemical. Meanwhile, Sabbie continued panting and saying “Please, please” as the officers dragged him to a shower to wash him off and then threw him on the ground in his cell, closing the door.

The man died 14 hours later of “natural” causes.

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“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,” Erik J. Heipt, one of the attorneys representing the Sabbie family, told the Huffington Post. “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.”

Medical examiners linked Sabbie’s death to “hypertensive arteriosclerotic cardiovascular disease.” However, his family believes he died from a treatable and recognizable ailment known as pulmonary edema, an excess fluid in the lungs due to a heart condition.  

“We often find that someone’s death is characterized as ‘natural causes’ — maybe it was cancer, maybe it was heart disease,” said David C. Fathi, the director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “But if you look at the medical record, you often find egregious neglect and denial of care. If someone dies of cancer that went totally untreated, is that death from natural causes?”

The authorities said Sabbie’s wife, Teresa, reported that her husband threatened her during a fight over money shortly before his arrest. The man did not plead guilty to the charges. His wife called his death “a tragedy that should never have happened.”

“I can’t put into words how devastated my children and I are after the loss of Michael,” said the wife. “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.”

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice decided not to pursue charges against any of the officers involved despite the inhumane treatment displayed in the video.

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