6 of 9 deputies charged in death of man beaten in Memphis jail plead not guilty

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Six corrections deputies pleaded not guilty Friday to charges ranging from murder to aggravated assault in the beating and death of a Black man who was having a psychotic episode in a Memphis jail last year.

In all, nine Shelby County deputies were charged in September in the October 2022 death of Gershun Freeman, 33, who was an inmate at the county jail. Authorities said the jailers punched, kicked and kneeled on Freeman's back during a confrontation after he ran from his jail cell. The beating was caught on jail video that was released to the public.

Indictments show that Stevon Jones and Courtney Parham have been charged with second-degree murder and aggravated assault. Jones also has been charged with an additional count of assault.

Seven other deputies have been charged with aggravated assault resulting in the death of another person. Those officers are Jeffrey Gibson, Anthony Howell, Damian Cooper, Ebonee Davis, Lareko Donwel Elliot and Chelsey Duckett and Charles Gatewood.

The deputies appeared individually before Judge Chris Craft during a Friday hearing. Lawyers for Jones, Parham, Davis, Duckett, Gatewood and Gibson entered not guilty pleas for their clients. Cooper, Elliot and Howell told the judge that they had not yet hired attorneys. Craft set the next hearing for Dec. 1.

The deputies have been placed on administrative leave by the sheriff's office and they are free on bond on the criminal charges. Shelby County Sheriff Floyd Bonner defended his deputies in a September news conference.

“Let me be clear. No action — no action — by any Shelby County Sheriff’s Office employee caused Mr. Freeman’s death,” Bonner said, adding later that he would be “the first one to donate” to any fundraiser to help with his deputies’ legal fees.

Carlissa Shaw, the lawyer for Gatewood, told reporters he “is a lifelong Memphian who's done well in his community.”

“At the end of this, my client will be found not guilty,” Shaw said.

Meanwhile, Freeman’s family has called for the deputies to be sent to prison and accused corrections officers and jail leadership, including Bonner, of showing a pattern of violence against inmates. Freeman's family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Bonner, Chief Jailer Kirk Fields and the county government.

The case has drawn comparisons to the fatal beating of Tyre Nichols after a Jan. 7 traffic stop. The beating was caught on police video that also was publicly released. Five former Memphis Police Department officers have pleaded not guilty to both state and federal charges related to Nichols' death.

The Freeman case is being prosecuted by the office of Davidson County District Attorney Glenn Funk, who was appointed after Shelby County District Attorney Steve Mulroy recused himself.

Freeman had been booked in jail on charges of attacking and kidnapping his girlfriend, according to court records. The lawsuit said Freeman's family believed he was suffering from a mental health crisis when he was arrested,

Earlier this year, Funk released video of Freeman at the jail.

The video shows Freeman was beaten by at least 10 corrections officers on Oct. 5, 2022, after he ran naked from his cell.

In the video, officers wrestle Freeman to the ground and begin to punch, kick and pepper-spray him. They are joined by additional officers. The deputies move with Freeman out of the hallway. From another camera’s view, Freeman is seen wrapping himself around an officer’s legs in a different hallway.

The video shifts to a bank of escalators and Freeman, still naked, runs up one of them. In another hallway, a struggle continues with officers attempting to restrain him before getting him face-down on the ground. They can be seen stepping and kneeling on his back before he becomes still. One officer remained on Freeman’s back for several minutes before he was lifted.

He appears limp when officers do lift him up, with his head falling forward between his knees and his hands cuffed behind his back. He remains in that position until medical employees arrive, and the video ends.

A medical examiner's report said Freeman died of an exacerbation of cardiovascular disease “due to physical altercation and subdual.” Freeman’s manner of death is listed as a homicide in the autopsy report, although the report says that this “is not meant to definitively indicate criminal intent.” The report also cites “probable psychotic disorder” as a contributory cause of death.