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Manitoba prisoner repeatedly exclaimed ‘I cannot breathe’ over 20 occasions while being restrained by guards prior to his demise, as depicted in the video.

WARNING: This story contains disturbing video and details.

William Ahmo uttered the words “I can’t breathe” more than 20 times while officers swarmed and restrained him in a Manitoba jail, video footage of his final hours at the Headingley Correctional Centre shows. 

The video footage, shot on a handheld camera inside the jail more than two years ago, was shown in a Winnipeg courtroom last week during the first day of a trial for the corrections officer who faces charges in Ahmo’s death.

Robert Jeffrey Morden, a correctional officer who was the captain of Headingley’s emergency response unit, pleaded not guilty to criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide necessaries of life.

Ahmo, 45, who was an inmate at Headingley, was taken to hospital in medical distress following a Feb. 7, 2021, standoff with corrections officers in a common room at the jail.

He died a week later. Manitoba’s chief medical examiner ruled his death a homicide. 

CBC News viewed the nearly 21-minute-long video showing the Feb. 7 incident, which shows what begins as a standoff between Ahmo and corrections officers and ends with him receiving emergency first aid.

Provincial court Judge Tony Cellitti, who is presiding over Morden’s trial, approved the public release of the video on Friday.

The lawyer who is representing Ahmo’s family in a civil lawsuit told CBC they wanted the video released to the public.

WARNING: The video and descriptions below contain graphic content.

An excerpt from 21-minute-long video showing the Feb. 7, 2021, incident:

Warning: This video contains disturbing content. Video footage shows Headingley jail inmate William Ahmo being swarmed and restrained by corrections officers on Feb. 7, 2021. Ahmo was taken to hospital in medical distress and died a week later. His death was ruled a homicide.

Struggle with officers

The footage begins after Ahmo created a disturbance in the jail, and other inmates were then locked in their cells.

In another video shown in court, Ahmo — an Anishinaabe man from Sagkeeng First Nation — is heard telling crisis negotiator Michel Jolicoeur that he was upset over hearing a racist joke earlier that day. 

In the 21-minute video, Ahmo is seen ripping a water tank and televisions off the wall, smashing the televisions on the floor, and throwing items at the protective glass of a secured staff area. 

At the start of the video, Ahmo stands at the top of a stairwell swinging a mop handle, as officers fire projectiles — described in court as “flash bangs” (stun grenades) and stinger grenades, which release a chemical irritant — at him from the floor below. Ahmo holds a trash can up as a shield before descending the stairs, swinging the handle at the officers.

A group of at least seven officers with shields and batons take Ahmo down on the floor. A struggle ensues for about two minutes until officers restrain his wrists and ankles. 

Ahmo is then taken away from the common area into another room, still face down on the floor.

“You’re crushing my neck,” Ahmo says.

A pair of officers appear to be kneeling on his back, and one of them appears to have a hand on the back of his neck.

Ahmo first tells the guards he can’t breathe about seven minutes into the video — two minutes after he was fully restrained. 

An officer continues to pin Ahmo face down, with his arms and legs held down and an officer’s knee on Ahmo’s upper back — a restraint known as a prone restraint, court was told. 

A corrections officer says, “He can’t breathe, so can you just make sure he can breathe?”

A man in jeans wearing medical gloves comes into view and looks at Ahmo. A corrections officer giving commands to the group asks, “Is he good?” 

“He’s good now,” is the reply, and the officer giving commands confirms that a nurse checked on Ahmo.

Chair restraint

Ahmo continues to exclaim he can’t breathe over and over, as officers move him into a chair with wheels and a vertical back. His arms remain restrained behind his back and Ahmo is slumped over. 

Morden can be heard off camera yelling, “If you’re talking to us, you can breathe!”

“Choking,” Ahmo responds.

He remains slumped over in the chair, groaning and panting as officers struggle to restrain him in the chair.

“Be quiet!” an officer yells.

“I can’t breathe!” Ahmo exclaims and repeats five more times. 

Shortly after, an officer can be heard yelling at Ahmo, telling him to stop moving. Ahmo replies by telling him he’d stop moving if “you let me breathe.”  

After an altercation in Headingley Correctional Institute in Feb. 2021, William Walter Ahmo was found unconscious, and died a week later.
William Ahmo died in hospital on Feb. 14, 2021, a week after the altercation with corrections officers at Headingley Correctional Centre. (Submitted by Darlene Ahmo)

Ahmo can be heard panting through a spit hood around 11 minutes into the video. Seconds later, officers pile on him again. He begins to muster a scream while struggling in the chair. An officer is seen kneeing him in the stomach just before the video reaches its 12-minute mark.

Officers continue to restrain Ahmo in the chair, swarming and piling on him as he struggles, slumped over and continuing to croak out he can’t breathe.

A muffled “please” is heard.

The officer calling out commands tells the group to “get him to the ground” but “keep control of him!”

Ahmo is lowered to the ground onto his back, and cries out he can’t breathe two final times. 

Throughout the footage, he repeated this phrase at least 23 times.

No response

He’s rolled to the ground by the group about 14 minutes into the video as an officer yells “just let him sit there.” 

Seconds later, the same officer can be heard saying “just let him cool down. Let’s get as few guys as we need on the body.” However, at least five officers can be seen in view holding him down. 

“Do you want help?” the officer says to Ahmo twice, with no response. “Is he breathing?” he asks. Someone says yes.

Soon after, Ahmo is rolled into a “recovery position” and corrections officers try to locate a pulse. An officer can be heard asking, “So he’s still good? He’s still alive?”

Another officer says, “He’s still alive.”

Seconds later, another officer can be heard saying, “he’s currently non-responsive, but he does have a pulse and he does have a heartbeat and he is breathing.” 

A noise that sounds like a snore can be heard from Ahmo as this conversation is happening and the officers also notice it. 

‘Breathing that occurs at the end of life’: pathologist

At Morden’s trial earlier this week, forensic pathologist Dr. Charles Littman said Ahmo showed signs of agonal breathing — a type of breath that sounds like someone gasping for air — in the video.

“It’s breathing that occurs at the end of life,” Littman testified. “It’s several breaths — a reflex reaction — to the brain being starved of oxygen.”

Near the end of the video, Ahmo is dragged back into the chair. A corrections officer tells the group to “watch his head” and another officer pulls it back quickly. At this point, Ahmo is sitting in the chair with his head back and his mouth open. 

Shortly after, a corrections officer says, “He’s not in a big world of hurt right now,” as the 45-year-old is lying with his head back and mouth open, unresponsive in the chair. 

Toward the tail end of the video, a different nurse says she needs to administer oxygen to Ahmo and initiate a “code red,” meaning a person has no pulse. Ahmo is put on his back.

Another person starts giving him oxygen as officers continue to hold down his limbs before the video ends.

Ahmo was then taken to hospital, where he died on Feb. 14, 2021.

Morden’s judge-only trial began Sept. 1. It resumes Sept. 25, when Morden’s lawyer is expected to call defence witnesses.

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