May’s family had filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the jail and its health care provider in May 2019, alleging “excruciating pain and suffering.”
The suit said May had struggled with mental health issues and had tested positive for amphetamines at the time of his arrest.
Harper and Teddy Reese, who represent May’s family, thanked Willis and the grand jury during a press conference Tuesday afternoon. They stood next to two of May’s sons, Za’Kobe and Jordan Rickerson, who held up family photos, and other family members.
“No one should have to lose their life the way that Mr. May lost his,” Reese said, adding that law enforcement must treat all inmates as “human beings.”
“This is not an anti-police moment,” he said. “This is an accountability moment. This is holding people responsible for taking a man’s life in cold blood murder.”
The Fulton County Sheriff’s Office declined to comment.
The deputies were identified in the indictment as Arron Cook, Guito Dela Cruz, Omar Jackson, Jason Roache, Kenesia Strowder and William Whitaker.
In the wrongful death complaint Harper filed in 2019, May’s family alleged that he had been taken to the jail after Grady Memorial Hospital physicians diagnosed him with Substance Abuse Psychotic Disorder. Upon his arrival, May told a medical technician with NaphCare, Inc., the jail’s medical provider, that he was suicidal, the suit alleged.
“As opposed to putting Mr. May in the Special Medical Observation Unit at the Fulton County Jail and giving him detoxifying chemical sedation, due to his mental health issues and due to him testing positive for amphetamines, the medical professionals at NaphCare, Inc. released Mr. May to the jail deputies to place Mr. May in a general holding cell,” the complaint stated.
The suit goes on to say that after May allegedly exposed himself while in the holding cell, six deputies from the jail’s Direct Action Response Team unit tased, beat and pepper sprayed him repeatedly. May was then placed in a restraining chair, a spit mask on his face, and taken to shower for decontamination. After that, the deputies put a hose to May’s face to flush the remaining pepper spray, according to the complaint. May was pronounced dead minutes later.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said in May 2019 that May had been combative with jail staff, prompting a confrontation. Deputies then tased and pepper-sprayed May.
After he was decontaminated from the pepper spray, he became unresponsive and died, a GBI spokeswoman told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time.
The Fulton DA’s investigation of the incident ultimately dragged on for three years. Harper said when Willis was newly elected, she had promised May’s family that she would have a decision in the case by the end of the year.
Willis’ office is currently working through a backlog of some 11,000 cases due in part to the pandemic and, as Willis has said, inaction by her predecessor Paul Howard, especially on use of force cases involving law enforcement.
The Fulton County Jail has faced lawsuits over its treatment of inmates. The facility was under federal oversight until 2015 after the Southern Center for Human Rights sued, alleging crowded, dirty and dangerous conditions.
Reese said May’s case illuminates the way that law enforcement all too often treats people with mental illness and substance abuse problems.
“Treat someone like your mother, like your father. Not like the scum of the earth,” Reese said. “Sometimes, that’s the treatment that a lot of inmates inside these facilities receive. This case is going to highlight that.”