PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Surveillance video obtained by 13News Now shows an officer at the Hampton Roads Regional Jail (HRRJ) using an alleged chokehold that prosecutors think went too far.
Robert Whitaker, now a former officer at HRRJ, is charged with felony strangulation for the 2019 incident involving inmate Johnnie Simmons.
Simmons, who has since been released from jail, first told his story to 13News Now in February.
"I tried to say 'I can't breathe,' and I found that there's a luxury in saying 'I can't breathe,' because I couldn't utter the words,” Simmons said.
He said Whitaker put him into a chokehold until he passed out.
Whitaker’s defense attorney argued during a preliminary hearing in May that there was no evidence that Whitaker put Simmons into a chokehold.
Other officers testified that they “brought Simmons to the floor” but that no one touched the inmate’s neck.
Simmons said that’s not the case, and points to a moment in the video where his right leg went limp.
"Mr. Whitaker took me to the ground and put me in a chokehold, like the Eric Garner chokehold," he said. "And he began choking me continuously while I was handcuffed, and I was defenseless."
The Hampton Roads Regional Jail has switched leadership since the incident.
The current administration would not elaborate on how the situation was handled at the time, citing privacy laws in the workplace.
“Several current officers who worked with the accused former Officer Whittaker indicated he was a good Jail Officer during his stint of employment,” HRRJ spokeswoman Sharon Scott wrote. “Officers indicated that he was a person everyone could count on to do what is right, and follow policy.”
Scott said that under the jail’s current leadership, officers receive “extensive training” in de-escalation and “how to properly handle inmates during various situations that may arise.”
Officers must also help inmates in their efforts to file complaints should they have issues regarding their care, or how they are treated.
Whitaker’s trial is scheduled to begin Sept. 13 in Portsmouth Circuit Court.