Civil rights attorneys announce lawsuit in Richland County jail death

“This is one of the worst cases of murder I’ve ever seen,” said Jones, a former Houston, Texas, prosecutor.

By Ted Clifford
The State

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Civil rights attorneys Bakari Sellers and Audia Jones announced Wednesday a federal lawsuit has been filed in the death of Lason Butler, who died in a Richland County jail cell of dehydration with his body covered in rat bites.

“This is one of the worst cases of murder I’ve ever seen,” said Jones, a former Houston, Texas, prosecutor.

The federal civil rights lawsuit, filed Wednesday in the South Carolina District Court, charges seven defendants with wrongfully causing Butler’s death. Among them are Richland County; Shane Kitchen, the interim head of the jail while Butler was imprisoned for a traffic violation; as well as five corrections officers and staff.

“We’re going to take this all the way to the federal courthouse steps,” vowed Sellers, a former state representative.

The 27-year-old Butler, who was arrested on traffic violations, died from “complications of acute dehydration” after two weeks in the jail, according to a report released by the Richland County Coroner’s Office.

“Everybody makes mistakes,” said Butler’s mother, Lakeisha Butler. “But he shouldn’t have had to pay with his life.”

The Richland County Coroner’s Office ruled Butler’s death a homicide. “But for (the jail staff’s) lack of action, he would be alive,” said Coroner Naida Rutherford. The lawsuit alleges that Butler was denied food, water, and medical care while being held in the jail’s “Special Housing Unit.” The Orangeburg native was found dead in his cell on Feb. 12.

Sellers characterized the jail staff’s behavior towards Butler as “’deliberate indifference. Those are the two most important words in this case.”

While the homicide ruling opens up the possibility that a county official could face criminal charges in Butler’s death, no charges have been filed. Sellers said that attorneys have been in communication with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, which has completed its own investigation.

Butler was jailed on Jan. 31 after being arrested for failing to stop for police, reckless driving, and driving with a suspended license — all of those charges are misdemeanors. His family say he was suffering a mental health crisis at the time of his arrest.

Three inmates have died in the troubled Alvin S Glenn Detention Center so far in 2022. In a separate lawsuit filed in federal court this April, a disability rights group alleged a pattern of mistreatment towards detainees with mental illnesses. Employees routinely misused restraints, used shower stalls as cells, and left detainees in unsupervised solitary confinement, the lawsuit alleges.

“We don’t know how much a Black man’s life is worth,” said Sellers, “but we’re going to find out.”

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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