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Attorney who represented George Floyd’s family now seeking charges for officers involved in S.C. inmate’s death

Jamal Sutherland died in January after deputies repeatedly used stun guns and kneeled on his back to restrain him

Ben Crump

Ben Crump first rose to national prominence when he represented the family of Trayvon Martin, a teenager killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida.

AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

By Caitlin Byrd
The State

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The family of Jamal Sutherland, the 31-year-old Black man who struggled with mental illness and died inside the Charleston County jail after deputies used tasers, pepper spray and physical force to remove him from his cell, has retained a prominent civil rights lawyer to represent them as they renew their calls for legal action over their son’s death.

Attorney Ben Crump, who acted as the family lawyer for George Floyd, on Tuesday afternoon called for charges to be filed against the officers involved in Sutherland’s death.

“We all know what the truth is,” Crump said to interjections of “amen” from the Sutherland family, their supporters and community leaders who gathered at a news conference held outside 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson’s downtown Charleston office.

“They unjustly killed this man who was having a mental health crisis,” an impassioned Crump said as he stood at a podium. “This was a child who needed a helping hand, but yet he got Tasers, and pepper spray, and knees in his back and a spit mask when he couldn’t breathe.”

Crump, who helped secure a record-breaking $27 million settlement for the family of George Floyd, will be working with Columbia attorney Carl Solomon.

Crump was joined by representatives from the National Action Network, who said Tuesday they have sent letters to both S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson and to Acting U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart seeking further investigation into and, ultimately, charges related to Sutherland’s death.

In the Sept. 7 letter sent to DeHart, the Rev. Nelson Rivers of the National Action Network formally asked the U.S. Department of Justice to open a federal criminal investigation into the actions of the two deputies involved in Sutherland’s death.

During the press conference, Rivers said the National Action Network has not received a response from Wilson or DeHart.

“But we will not stop asking and demanding,” Nelson said.

Sutherland died on the morning of Jan. 5, after he was forcibly removed from his cell at the Sheriff Al Cannon Detention Center for a scheduled bond hearing that he was not legally required to attend.

Sutherland had been transferred to the jail the night before from a mental health facility where he was seeking help. He was facing a misdemeanor charge connected to a fight at Palmetto Lowcountry Behavioral Health.

For months, details surrounding Sutherland’s death were unknown. But in May, nearly four months after Sutherland died and facing mounting public pressure, Charleston County Sheriff Kristin Graziano released hours of graphic footage that showed what happened.

The public dissemination of those videos led to swift protests in Charleston, where community leaders, activists and citizens called for changes to how people with mental illness are treated while in custody.

The city of North Charleston also released footage, which showed the moments leading up to Sutherland’s arrest.

In one of the clips, as Sutherland waited with a North Charleston police officer outside the psychiatric hospital, Sutherland said, “I come here to get help. I ain’t come here to get locked up.”

This renewed push for legal action on Tuesday came nearly three months after 9th Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson announced her office would not pursue criminal charges against the two deputies involved in Sutherland’s death, detention deputy Brian Houle and detention Sgt. Lindsay Fickett.

In announcing her decision this summer, the prosecutor said she reviewed hours of graphic body-camera footage and also sought second opinions on Sutherland’s cause of death and the use of force by deputies in a corrections setting.

“I can prove what they did,” Wilson said at a July 26 press conference. “I cannot prove their criminal intent.”

In May, on the one-year anniversary of the police killing of George Floyd, Charleston County Council approved a $10 million settlement with the Sutherland family.

Crump said Sutherland’s life was deserving of more than “a few silver coins thrown on the ground.”

Solomon said he and Crump will work together to keep asking the 9th Circuit Solicitor and the state attorney general to review Sutherland’s case, urge them bring appropriate criminal charges and let a jury determine the guilt of the officers involved in Sutherland’s jail death.

Crump then promised he will return to Charleston to demand justice for Sutherland and his family, and he plans to come with the Rev. Al Sharpton, the family of George Floyd and the family of Breonna Taylor.

“You can’t have two justice systems, one for Black Americans, and another for white Americans,” Crump said, holding up two fingers. “And it starts with Jamal Sutherland, and we refuse to let you sweep this under the rug.”

Crump, who has been called “Black America’s attorney general,” has become a frequent voice for Black families whose loved ones were killed by police. He said these are family members who have now joined a fraternity they never wanted their loved ones to belong to, a fraternity of “dead Black people unjustly killed by the very people who were supposed to protect and serve them.”

In 2013, he first rose to national prominence when he represented the family of Trayvon Martin, a teenager killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Florida. Soon after, he then took on the case for the family of Michael Brown, who was fatally shot by a white officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

He has gone on to win financial settlements in about 200 police brutality cases.

James Sutherland, the father of Jamal Sutherland, invoked a Bible passage found in the book of Ecclesiastes when he said he felt like it was a “new season” for his family. But he also acknowledged the uphill battle that may lie ahead.

“We know in the race for civil rights justice, it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon, and we intend to finish this race,” he said.

But as he talked about his son’s dizzying journey from a mental health facility to the Charleston County jail, more than nine months of pain and exasperation spilled out as he called on people from across the country to come and stand in solidarity with his family.

“What kind of system is this where innocent people get murdered, caught on video? You can get more time for doing a dog like that,” he said. “And my son wasn’t no dog.”

On Monday, Crump was in Georgia as jury selection began in the trial of three white men charged with fatally shooting Ahmaud Arbery as he was out for a jog in their neighborhood.

On Tuesday, as he stood with the Sutherland family in Charleston, Crump questioned why criminal charges could not be brought in South Carolina for Sutherland. At the end of the press conference, he squeezed Amy Sutherland’s hand for support.

Taking a seat on a nearby bench, the matriarch of the Sutherland family confided that she has not slept well since the death of her son, but on Monday night, she said, she slept a little easier than she has in a long time.

She said she doesn’t have to explain her pain to Crump. He knows her loss, but she still talks about her son every day. When she cleans the house, Amy Sutherland said she still cleans Jamal’s room.

“I know he’s not coming back, but he’s never left me. I can still feel him with me,” she said.

Asked how long she plans to fight for her son, Amy Sutherland replied, “I will die fighting for Jamal.”

(c)2021 The State (Columbia, S.C.)