Editor’s Note: This story describes and contains images of graphic violence.
The last words Damien Cameron said to his mother, Monica Lee Cameron, were “I can’t breathe” and “Mama, I love you.”
On July 26, 2021, Rankin County Sheriff Deputy Hunter Elward arrived at the Cameron residence in Braxton, Miss., after a neighbor’s sister made a 911 call claiming Damien Cameron was drunk and punching holes into the neighbor’s wall, the Justice 4 Damien website says. There was no evidence of damage, but Elward continued to arrest him without probable cause or a warrant, the family says.
Monica Lee Cameron said at a press conference in Jackson on June 22, 2023, that she witnessed the deputy chase her son through the woods and around the family’s house while threatening and tasing him several times. She said Elward followed Damien Cameron into the house, tased him, wrested him down to the floor and dragged him outside.
The mother alleges that Elward punched her son and rolled him over before kneeling on his neck and back for about 20 minutes until Deputy Luke Stickman arrived. Stickman also kneeled on Damien Cameron’s back before they handcuffed him and brought him to his family’s front porch, she alleges.
Monica Lee Cameron said her son pleaded with the deputies and said, “I can’t breathe.”
Her Son Was Barely Breathing
A Mississippi Bureau of Investigations report on July 25, 2022, cites an interview with Elward, saying the deputy “attempted to arrest Damien Cameron when Cameron fled behind the house,” and that they wrestled on the ground. The deputy tasered him as he ran inside the home and they wrestled on the floor of a bedroom, the report says. Then Stickman arrived and “assisted handcuffing (Damien) Cameron,” and the deputies walked him to the police car and placed him inside, the report continues.
The report does not mention the officers kneeling on Damien Cameron’s neck.
“Elward returned to his patrol unit and found (Damien) Cameron unresponsive,” the report says, adding that the deputies performed CPR on him and called paramedics.
Months after the MBI report was released, in October 2022, a grand jury declined to indict either deputy. Both are still employed at the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department.
Monica Lee Cameron said her son was barely breathing as he collapsed several times while the deputies dragged him into the police car.
The family said the paramedics saw that he was not breathing and rushed him to Simpson General Hospital. The doctor there said they could not help Damien Cameron because of the intensity of his wounds and transferred him to the University of Mississippi Medical Center. The trauma team saw him, but it was too late. Damien Cameron died at age 29.
‘Damien Was A Good Child’
Two years have passed, but the Cameron family still does not have answers from the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department. Damien Cameron’s autopsy report says his cause of death is undetermined. Monica Lee Cameron does not have access to the dash-camera footage of her son’s arrest because the police told her it was lost. The Rankin County Sheriff’s Department and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation have not shared the public records with the family.
The Cameron family and national activism organization COMMUNITYx held a press conference June 22, 2023, to share Damien Cameron’s story. They called on local and state governments to provide information regarding his arrest and death. They also sought to call President Joe Biden and the U.S. Department of Justice’s attention to the case and urged them to take action.
COMMUNITYx Founder and CEO Chloë Cheyenne said the autopsy report and the officers’ conclusion of events does not match what the doctor told the family about the cause of Damien Cameron’s death.
Activist Walt Kelly said the evidence for Damien Cameron’s murder “is in his face” and called on the MBI and sheriff’s department to release the public records and body camera footage. MBI now investigates all cases of officers allegedly involved in violence against Mississippians and often does not release information for months if then.
Monica Lee Cameron held back tears as she talked about her son.
“In my heart, he may not mean anything to (the officers), but that was my child,” she said. “And I think I deserve justice for him.”
The mother said her son was not violent and did not deserve to die.
“Damien was a good child. … Never done harm to anybody,” she said.
Cornelius Cameron and his brother were two years apart in age. He said their bond was strong, and they could always count on each other for help and support.
“He was always smiling,” Cornelius Cameron said.
‘Allowing A Black Genocide’
Cornelius Cameron said he now fears for safety when he’s around Rankin County officers because he looks similar to his brother.
Chloë Cheyenne said Damien Cameron’s death is not an anomaly.
“We understand that this is a systemic issue. Rankin County and the PD of the county as a whole needs to be investigated and there needs to be some level of atonement for what’s been happening here,” Cheyenne said.
The Rankin County Sheriff’s Department, the MBI, Attorney General Lynn Fitch and Gov. Tate Reeves are “allowing a Black genocide,” activist Walt Kelly said.
He said the sheriff’s department needed de-escalation training and officers “need to follow the law” and uphold a person’s civil rights.
“There’s no pursuit of life and happiness if you’re Black in America,” Cheyenne said, agreeing with Kelly.
“This investigation warrants no further Bureau activity and is close(d),” Donnell Feazell wrote in the MBI report on Sept. 30, 2021.
The Mississippi Free Press called the Rankin County Sheriff’s Department and the MBI for comments but did not hear back by press time.