The death of an unarmed man who was subjected to a controversial form of police restraint has been ruled a homicide by a North Carolina State medical examiner. However, the post-mortem examination was hampered by the refusal of police to release body camera footage of the officers involved as evidence for determining the cause of death.
In addition to the autopsy report, new witnesses have come forward since the incident occurred to share details about how police used deadly force, and to divulge why they believe the in-custody death of Christopher Robert Hensley at the hands of Fletcher, NC, police could have been prevented.
Hensley was pinned to the ground by several Fletcher police officers and a Henderson, NC, sheriff during an arrest that took place in June of 2022. Police say they were called to an apartment Hensley shared with his wife after he refused to leave during a domestic dispute. Police allege Hensley then became combative when officers tried to remove him from the premises.
Hensley was tasered twice, then handcuffed and taken to the ground. Officers sat on top of him while he was lying prone on the parking lot, facedown, for roughly four minutes, according to a video taken by a bystander. Police then suddenly turned him over and performed CPR.
Hensley was pronounced dead shortly thereafter at a local hospital.
The autopsy report, the contents of which have now been made public, lists several potential factors that contributed to Hensley’s death, but ultimately concludes that police restraint was the primary cause, ruling the manner of death a homicide: “Because physical restraint contributed to death, the manner of death is best classified as homicide,” the report states.
Among the other factors the report cited was the presence of a slight heart abnormality. A toxicology report also found evidence of cocaine and methamphetamine metabolites. The report also noted multiple abrasions and lacerations to Hensley’s upper body and back that led to substantial “soft tissue’ injuries.
Curiously, the report notes that the medical examiners who conducted the autopsy did not have access to the body-worn cameras of the police officers involved. “The opportunity to review body camera footage from the incident was requested,” the examiner noted; “however, the footage could not be reviewed prior to case sign out.”
It is unclear why Fletcher police did not release the body-worn cameras to medical examiners conducting Hensley’s autopsy. The department did not respond to email requests for comment. The department has also not explained why the officers used a tactic to subdue Hensley that is considered both dangerous and potentially lethal.
The Police Accountability Report consulted with noted forensic pathologist Cyril Wecht shortly after Hensley’s death to review the video. His conclusions comport with those contained in the recently released autopsy report.
“My initial impression is that this case is almost a twin of the George Floyd-Derek Chauvin situation. It is as brutal, as barbaric, as that was—in a way more so, because of the multiplicity of officers involved,” Wecht told PAR. “Have they not lived in America? Have they not seen and read about the George Floyd case? Are they not aware of positional asphyxiation?”
George Floyd died in May of 2020 after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck for roughly nine minutes. Chauvin was convicted of murder in 2021. He was also convicted on federal charges of denying Floyd his Constitutional rights.
PAR asked the North Carolina Attorney General’s office, which oversees the agency that trains and certifies police officers in the state, if prone restraint is still an officially approved tactic. Nazeen Ahmed, a spokesperson for the AG’s office, said the tactic is not taught at the state’s primary training facility.
“The Justice Academy does not instruct the use of prone restraint. We train officers on using the prone position to reduce threat until handcuffs are placed, but our curriculum instructs that the person should be removed from the prone position immediately after,” Ahmed said.
Since our last story on Hensley’s death was published in July, several witnesses who live in the apartment complex where he was restrained by officers have come forward with new details. Witnesses attest that the officers’ aggressive actions were not warranted and that police ignored Hensley’s cries for help.
One witness who watched the ordeal from his balcony, which overlooks the parking where Hensley died, requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation from law enforcement. His description of events depicts the officers as single-minded and aggressive in their efforts to restrain Hensley.
“Mr. Hensley was crying (and) yelling that he would ‘just leave’ very loudly to the officers on the scene,” the witness told PAR.
“A deputy went in below Mr. Hensley’s left knee and gained left leg control by pushing Mr. Hensely’s ankle up to his buttock and crossing Mr. Henseley’s ankles at the buttocks. I was able to hear cries of pain from Mr. Hensley as his ankles were pressed to his buttocks and he struggled to escape the pain compliance being utilized,” the witness told PAR.
The witness also said that, despite Hensley struggling to right his body and turn on his side, officers doubled down by putting pressure on his back, eventually striking him in the head.
“The four officers clamored back on top of him, with the deputy who was restraining his ankle standing over Mr. Hensley’s left shoulder and very loudly exclaimed, ‘I’m not messing with you,’ and struck Mr. Hensley in the head hard enough to cause his head to strike the pavement,” the witness recounted.
“What I witnessed from the officers involved was one of the most egregious actions I have ever personally seen,” the witness added.
But this particular witness is not the only person who watched the ordeal firsthand to come forward. Lucinda Farrow, a neighbor and friend of Hensley who recorded the only video of his death that has been made public, says she was stunned by how aggressive police were during the arrest.
“They were angry, they were reacting in spite, they punched him in the head at least two times while he was in handcuffs,” she told PAR “I was in terror.”
Especially appalling to Farrow was how the officer treated a man who had been both a good friend and a helpful neighbor.
“He was easy to talk to and always insisted on helping and would always run and help with the groceries. He was always so respectful,” she said.
“Then when a man is down, you were on top of him, you had kicked him, you had tased him, you had grappled him to the ground, seven of you? Seven of you! Do you have no shame?”
“It’s not human, it’s just not human to do that,” said Farrow.
“They were not police, they were criminals, committing a crime.”