'I Am Going to Heaven' — The Death of Oral Nunis in Chula Vista Police Custody
A newly-unsealed autopsy, coupled with a video the Chula Vista Police Department published in August, gives the public more details of what happened the night Oral Nunis died.
Oral Nunis had a “sudden cardiorespiratory arrest while restrained in police custody,” according to the newly released autopsy of Nunis, who died after a violent interaction with Chula Vista Police Department officers in March 2020.
Nunis’ autopsy report had been sealed for more than a year by CVPD. Voice of San Diego obtained a copy through a records request after the police department lifted the seal. The autopsy offered more clarity on the incident but leaves unresolved the question of exactly what killed him and whether his death was a justifiable outcome of his interaction with police that night. His family is suing Chula Vista for wrongful death and unreasonable force.
In August, in the midst of the legal battle, the police released a heavily edited and produced video, which the department compiled from body-worn camera footage. The city had a private company edit the footage and had it vetted by a team of lawyers. In the video, the police included some details from the autopsy even though they hadn’t allowed the autopsy report to go public yet.
The video the city published shows that the police officers’ body-worn cameras abruptly turned off during two key moments leading up to Nunis’ death.
In the video’s introduction, Chula Vista Police Chief Roxana Kennedy says her department released the video to give the public “as full a picture as possible about this incident.” But because of the lapses in body-camera footage, the video doesn’t provide a full account of what happened that night.
Instead of releasing raw footage, the city paid $7,000 to a video editing company called Critical Incident Videos. The company mostly edits these types of videos for law enforcement agencies, including the San Diego Police Department.
Critics of Critical Incident Videos say their videos are produced in a way that tells a story from the police departments’ perspectives — they begin with an introduction from the police chief and include slides that frame what happened in a specific context.
Who Was Oral Nunis and What Happened to Him?
Nunis immigrated to California from Jamaica, had seven children and owned a small trucking business outside Stockton. He was about 5-foot-5 and weighed 140 pounds.
In March 2020, he was in Chula Vista to visit his adult daughter who lived in an apartment complex on Camino Carmelo.
Specifics of what happened the night Nunis died vary depending on who tells the story.
Nunis’ daughter called police because Nunis was experiencing a mental health episode and she worried Nunis would hurt himself. After a brief struggle between Nunis and the arriving officer, Nunis was chased outside and tackled to the ground. Two more police officers arrived and forced Nunis into handcuffs and then a WRAP device. Once restrained, officers handed Nunis off to paramedics. A short while later, paramedics told officers that Nunis was dying. He was declared dead that night in a local hospital.
Nunis’ death happened two months before the murder of George Floyd prompted nationwide protests condemning police officers’ use of force against people of color.
Nunis didn’t become part of that national conversation.
It is not easy to find the video Chula Vista paid to produce and publish.
The Chula Vista Police Department marked the video as “unlisted,” which means it doesn’t appear publicly on the department’s official YouTube channel and it doesn’t appear in YouTube search results. The only way to see the video is if you have the link — which we have here.
The most glaring omissions in CVPD’s video are two separate instances of body-worn cameras abruptly shutting off during key moments of the officers’ exchange with Nunis.
The first, which was attributed to an “internal malfunction,” happened during the responding officer’s initial struggle with Nunis inside the daughter’s apartment.
CVPD’s video shows the officer following Nunis’ daughter upstairs where Nunis is sitting on the ground. Before greeting Nunis or saying anything to him, the officer takes out his handcuffs.
The video shows Nunis trying to barter with the officer: “I will come with you. No hand-cuffs please.” The officer responds by saying, “You gotta go in handcuffs. You’re not in any trouble, this is for safety reasons.” Still, Nunis says he doesn’t want handcuffs.
The officer takes a step back and says, “Stay seated OK? We gotta talk through this. You gotta go in handcuffs.” The video then cuts off.
Next time we see Nunis, he is lying on the street with an officer on top of him.
What Happened When the Video Was Off?
Kennedy, in her introduction to the video, said:
“Unfortunately within moments Mr. Nunis went from a passive state to resisting the solo officer’s efforts to talk through his difficulties. Mr. Nunis quickly stood up and moved to the staircase as though to invade the officer. In light of Mr. Nunis’ irrational and unpredictable state, and his earlier attempt to jump through a second story window, consistent with our department’s training, our officer moved to try to restrain Mr. Nunis so that he could not pose a danger to himself or others. But Mr. Nunis broke free and ran outside, potentially increasing the danger to himself and the public. In response, our officer tackles Mr. Nunis and tried to restrain him again.”
The family’s lawyer, in a lawsuit, wrote:
“Mr. Nunis threatened by officers tone and signs of being arrested ran out of the apartment room and down a flight of stairs that led outside. Chula Vista Officers pursued Mr. Nunis outside and one of the officers tacked Mr. Nunis to the ground.”
The second time body-camera video abruptly shuts off was attributed to being “bumped off” when two officers forced Nunis into handcuffs. This was after Nunis had been tackled to the ground.
The video doesn’t capture the physical struggle to restrain Nunis.
When the body-camera is turned back on, it shows Nunis’ face grimacing in pain as his daughter holds his chin. Nunis tells his daughter, “God bless you. I am going to heaven.”
The officers then put him in a WRAP device, covered his face with an anti-spit hood, and handed him off to paramedics.
When asked how often their cameras malfunction, the Chula Vista Police Department said, “This is a question for AXON [the company that supplies the department with body-worn cameras].”
The Coroner’s Report
The video includes text slides with brief descriptions of the police department’s account of what happened. The last slide mentions a coroner’s report, which was still sealed at the request of the department when the video was posted online. But it is now unsealed.
The video’s slides include incomplete information from the autopsy report. For example, the slide states, “Mr. Nunis’ cause of death is listed as cardiac arrest of an undetermined manner that appears to have been cause by excited delirium. The coroner also noted that Mr. Nunis had a history of anxiety and high blood pressure.”
The official cause of death listed in the autopsy is, “sudden cardiorespiratory arrest while re-strained in police custody.” The manner of death is listed as “undetermined.”
The video makes no mention of the autopsy report’s notes that Nunis had injuries all over his body. The autopsy report said he had “multiple abrasions of head, face, torso, and upper and lower extremities.”
The autopsy does reference “excited delirium,” but in more nuanced language than what was presented in the police department’s video.
The report states “it is possible the decedent had some type of undiagnosed psychologic disorder that altered his mental state enough to agitate him to the point of an excited delirium-type scenario where he would be susceptible to a sudden cardiac arrhythmia during the post-excitement phase of his heightened or altered sensorium.”
The report goes on to state that it does not appear that Nunis was having difficulty breathing when he was initially handcuffed and placed in the WRAP device.
“Therefore, this is likely an excited delirium-type scenario and his death is a result of a sudden cardiac arrhythmia during the post-excited or post-peril phase,” it states.
The autopsy does not definitively say what triggered Nunis’ death.
“It is unclear why the decedent went into cardiorespiratory arrest,” the report states. “There was no evidence of significant natural disease, trauma, drugs of abuse, or obesity to explain the death. He was alive and responding (via cam video review) during the time he was placed on a gurney for transport to a hospital.”